Margaret Edson‘s Pulitzer-winning 1995 play Wit finally makes it to Broadway in a Lynne Meadow-directed production starring Cynthia Nixon as a poetry professor named Vivian Bearing who’s bearing a lot, actually.
Vivian has been diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, and as she embarks on eight rounds of chemo, she’s drolly noticing that her medical helpers are a little chilly and clinical, much as she’s been in her entire teaching career (though at least she knows what “soporific” means).
Nixon enters, addressing the audience in a hospital gown, a baseball cap, and an IV, and it doesn’t feel like ideal casting because it seems to take work for her to pull off the hauteur and remoteness. It feels like someone playing a role.
But once she’s fully immersed in Vivian’s challenges, Nixon digs under her skin and takes it to commanding extremes, whether offering mordant observations, dissecting word meanings, screaming in pain, or yelping in resignation.
Also affecting is Suzanne Bertish as a teacher of Vivian’s (seen in a flashback) who ends up cradling her former pupil on her deathbed and reading her a children’s tale about a bunny making peace with his own existence.
And Carra Patterson is brilliantly understated as the nurse who offers Vivian an ice pop and some humanity before thuggish medics swarm in and step all over the moment.
Edson’s play is full of provocative thought about literature, medicine, research, education, and mind-versus-body.
At the heart of the production, Cynthia Nixon winds up infusing Wit with an intelligence and feeling that give this dissertation on death the life it deserves.