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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
For all the wit — Margaret Edson's . . . the latest Doctor Bearing's, as superlatively portrayed by Cynthia Nixon . . . and, of course, the words of Bearing's one great love, John Donne — the no punches pulled realism may set off your self-protective instinct to distance yourself from the subject that touches all of us at some level. While the indignities Bearing undergoes are indeed not easy to take, this is an exceptionally rich play, a triple layered exploration not just of death but how we deal with life.
The tough-minded, word-smitten scholar is a once-in-a-lifetime role for an actor. In the play's 1998 New York premiere, Kathleen Chalfant rendered Bearing with a force for which Curtainup's Les Gutman thought adjectives like "compelling" were an understatement. And so, while Nixon is very much a box office name given her years as Miranda in Sex and the City, and her Tony Award winning role in another Pulitzer Prize winning play, Rabbit Hole, Chalfant left big shoes to fill.
Nixon is a good enough actress to put her own stamp on this demanding role, but I was a bit apprehensive about whether this very personal story would lose something in a theater lacking the intimacy of the much smaller venue where it first played in New York and Shakespeare & Company's even smaller reconverted barn in Lenox, Massachussets where I first saw Wit the summer before the Off-Broadway run.
Fortunately Manhattan Theater Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre isn't a big cavernous house. And while the production helmed by MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow and with a slick tall column and turntable set design by Santo Loquasto is more Broadway-ish, than the above mentioned productions, Wit is powerful enough to resonate on any stage.
Nixon, when she first appears, bald pate beneath a baseball cap and tethered to a hospital walker with tubes dripping chemicals, seems a bit too cool and young (she's 45 which is why this production makes her 47 instead of 50 as originally written). But not for more than a few brief minutes. Her determination to retain the dignity of Doctor Bearing through her increasingly painful journey through the doctor's battle with death gives new meaning to Vivian's surname and Nixon's depiction is emotional dynamite. It's a performance that so delicately balances the professorial detachment and also conveying the vocal and physical changes accompanying Bearing's physical disintegration that it mitigates the final scene's somewhat milder impact for anyone who's seeing the play a second time.
Making her main character a Phd doctor, a classics scholar and tough teacher specializing in Donne's sonnets enabled Edson to connect the life of the intellect to the exclusion of warm personal relationships as well as to draw parallels between her and the oncologists in whose hands she puts herself. It is because Bearing is so bright and cool, that she submits her body as the text for experimental treatments. It is also because she's so bright that she transforms her darkest moments into caustically trenchant observations throughout the 90 minutes
First up of the also bright but too cool medical professionals is Harvey Kelekian M.D. (Michael Countryman), the chief oncologist whose explanation of the treatment plan is expertly detailed though completely lacking in personal warmth. Then there's one of Kelekian's Fellows, Dr. Jason Posner (Greg Keller), who once took her course to burnish his resume for medical school admission. As Bearing found Donne a seminal subject for her life's work, so Posner answers her query as to why he chose cancer rather than another specialty because he find's it "awsome" — a grand challenge to the exclusion of all else. " Posner's grade "F-" (as opposed to his A- in Bearing's class) bedside manner in administering an uncomfortable test would be funny if it weren't so devastatingly and unnecessarily humiliating for the patient, and such a chilling example of how a one-track passion for one discipline, whether literature or science, can circumscribe an individual's broader, more human side.
Except for Susie Monahan (Cara Patterson), a nurse, the tin-hearted, competency of Kelekian and Posner is echoed by the rest of the hospital staff. This is exemplified by the repeated " How are you feeling? " that routinely initiate everyone's contact with Bearing, though no one seems to expect or care about a response. It's also summed up in Bearing's ironic comments on the hospital's Grand Round routine: “Grand rounds. The term is theirs. Not “Grand” in the traditional sense of sweeping or magnificent. Not 'Rounds' as in musical canon, or a round of applause (though either would be refreshing at this point). Here, 'Rounds' seems to signify darting around the main issue."
Tthe one person who ultimately brings genuine warmth and comfort is Bearing's graduate school professor, E. M. Ashford (Suzanne Bertish). It was Ashford who fired up the young Bearing's intellectual curiosity but failed to convince her when she told her to fixate less on her scholarship and take time out to go out and have some fun. And it's the now 80-year-old professor who realizes that there are times when a simple children's book has as much to say as John Donne.
Though Wit features a cast of seven, several of whom play multiple characters and a few who, like Suzanne Bertish and Greg Keller, do standout work, this is a one star vehicle. Thus, as the just reviewed Richard III has a large ensemble but is Kevin Spacey's show, so this production is Cynthia Nixon's show, her chance to make Edson's play and Dr. Bearing's spirit still soar. And so she does!
Footnote: Margaret Edson is herself a literary scholar, having earned degrees in Renaissance history from Smith College and a master’s in English literature from Georgetown University. She was inspired to write Wit after witnessing the effects of devastating illness while working in the cancer and AIDS unit of a research hospital. Fortunately, the methodology described in the play has been replaced by less arduous treatments and even advanced cases of ovarian cancer have yielded some survivor stories. Hopefully less horrendous treatments and more positive results for all cancers will become as common as has been the case with breast cancer , which both Cynthia Nixon and Lynne Meadow have successfully survived lumpectomies instead of the once de rigueur mastectomies..
Despite winning the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama which has led to hundreds of productions in the United States and abroad, as well as an HBO film starring Emma Thompson, Edson has continued to work as public school teacher.
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