I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets,” Kathleen Chalfant, as Dr. Vivian Bearing, announces magisterially near the start of Wit (MCC Theater). In fact, she knows neither. Margaret Edson’s dazzling first play is about a brilliant but emotionally remote professor who learns she is dying of ovarian cancer. It traces her ”education”–in pain, death, and human need–as she endures, for research, a regimen of chemotherapy so punishing no one else has survived it.
Bearing is analogized to her idol, the 17th-century poet whose labyrinthine sonnets fended off his anguished doubts about salvation. Vivian throws up a shield of textual analysis against the terror of her disease, in one startling scene hiding herself in a panicked exegesis of familiar words as her doctor prattles out her death sentence in nearly impenetrable jargon.
Edson’s text is witty, eloquent, and thought-provoking, playing off Donne’s sonnets with nuance and cleverness. And the intellectual rigor of the chief character is reflected in a script that steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama while pointing out their temptations. Some scenes–Bearing prodded in a pelvic exam by a male researcher proud of the A- he received in her course–are laced with ironies and quite funny.
Complemented by a totally in-sync ensemble, the masterful Chalfant, bald and glittery-eyed in her hospital gown, shifts unerringly from arrogance and crisp precision to mute, helpless appeal to dry self-parody. In his sinisterly antiseptic staging, director Derek Anson Jones maintains a heartbreaking control of tone as Chalfant, her scholar’s battlements of word and logic crumbling, is flayed, stunningly, to her naked essence–her soul.