A conceit, an ironic barb, wit can be searing and funny. In the case of Margaret Edson's Wit, the Tony-winning play now in a Manhattan Theatre Club revival at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre under the fine direction of Lynne Meadow, Wit follows the journey of Vivian Bearing, a name that loosely translates to "enduring life," a college professor specializing in 17th century metaphysical poetry, in the verse of John Donne to be specific, author of Death Be Not Proud. As performed by Sex & the City's Cynthia Nixon, she is a brainy Everyman/woman, precious in what she knows and does, vital in knowledge, commitment, and contribution to life, devastating to lose. And lose her we do. Sorry for the spoiler: She dies at Wit's end.
Those passionate about Wit when it was first produced off Broadway in 1999 with Kathleen Chalfant in the gutsy role were skeptical about the casting of Cynthia Nixon. Slightly younger than Vivian as written, Nixon's bone thin skull, sculptural and cadaverous, and large blue eyes bring a great poignancy, the irony of cancer as an equal opportunity killer ravaging the still prime body, what William Burroughs called "the soft machine." Stage four ovarian cancer kills quickly foiling the medical team from using her for their research. Vivian's doctor (Greg Keller) is a onetime student in her poetry class; his procedures seem slightly less perfunctory, even as he administers her morphine drip.
Vivian's brave resistance is meshed with flashbacks to her lectures, Vivian delivering Donne's smart words ("Death, Thou shalt die!"), while she wears a hospital gown and baseball cap covering hairless head. The hat is a bright orange that matches the color of an ice pop she shares with her nurse (Carra Patterson). Brilliant as she was prior to illness, her academic supervisor (Suzanne Bertish), a sole visitor reads to her from that children's classic, Runaway Bunny, before Vivian -- to paraphrase another poet, Dylan Thomas, goes gently into that good night.
The loss is heartbreaking, of her and of her erudition, and in this small beautifully wrought chamber piece, epic.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.