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A CurtainUp Review

by Les Gutman

The advance "buzz" on this show has been that it is a play about a woman dying of cancer that affords a terrific actress a platform for a memorable performance. (See CurtainUp's review of last month's production in the Berkshires, linked below.) The production now on stage at MCC Theater fully substantiates that description. There are, in fact, three distinct albeit intertwined themes in first-time playwright Margaret Edson's Wit, and each affords a strong reason to rush to see it. (As the box below notes, this is a very short run.)

One week ago, I reviewed When the Bough Breaks, a new play about a couple that must confront the awful circumstances of the premature birth of a brain damaged baby. I made the following observation in my review:
This new play concerns itself with a sensation everyone hopes never to feel. I confess I was hesitant to experience it even vicariously. The good and bad news is that Clyman [the playwright] adorns the play with enough diversions so you don't feel it all that much.
Wit has no such diversions. The audience is immediately confronted with the first-person of Dr. Vivian Bearing (Kathleen Chalfant), a fifty year old English Literature professor whose adult life has been immersed in the metaphysical poetry of the 17th Century and who must now face the painful, humiliating path toward her "playes last scene,... pilgrimages last mile;... spans last inch,... minutes latest point...." [per the 3rd of Donne's "Holy Sonnets"] The focus never shifts. A hospital gown covers her naked body; a red baseball cap shields her hairless head. It is a role that begs for the type of committed performance Ms. Chalfant renders, the kind for which the usual words I would use, like "compelling," seem understated.

Yet the central story of Wit is not somber but indeed, as the title would tease, witty. It is as if Dr. Bearing videotaped her bout with terminal cancer, and then edited and narrated it from her final resting place. Edson has somehow, remarkably, found a voice for Dr. Bearing that is at peace, and Chalfant has assumed it with brilliance. No matter how closely the tragedy of cancer touches the living, there is a sense of remove that cannot be avoided. The play seems to have found a way to cross this bridge much as Donne creates (quoting Dame Helen Gardner via Wit's South Coast Rep dramaturg) "the illusion that we are listening to the very accent of passion become conscious of its power".

Wit is just as astute in its observation of how Dr. Bearing lived her life, the play's second but no less compelling theme. Falling in love with words at her father's knee as a young girl, Vivian seems to have maintained a monogamous relationship with literature. Her scholarship was her consuming and unrelenting passion, blinding her to other concerns and even to the underlying sense of humanity it should be teaching. Until her very last moments, she stoically endures pain and humiliation without flinching, physically or emotionally. She also suffers it alone. Where another person might have a friend hold her hand for comfort, Vivian's poems are her only friends. Only a poignant -- if too sentimental for Donne -- deathbed visit from her graduate school professor (Helen Stenborg), and a brief acknowledgment of the kindness of her hospital nurse (Paula Pizzi), interrupt Vivian's emotional solitude.

This portrait creates a segue to Edson's final theme, a comment on the nature of modern research medicine. Agreeing to submit to an arduous course of experimental chemotherapy, as encouraged by her oncologist (excellently portrayed by Walter Charles), Bearing encounters his bright research fellow, Jason Posner, M.D. (Alec Phoenix), who is also a former student of hers. He received an "A-" in Donne but now, myopically but ecstatically focused on the purity of his scholarship, has lost all of the pathmarkers to humanity that medicine should produce. He deserves an "F-" in bedside manner.

What Edson reveals, of course, is that Bearing and Posner are kindred spirits in their intellectual isolation. Phoenix is superb throughout, especially so in a scene in which Dr. Bearing, in self-recognition, asks him, "Why cancer?" [as his life's work]. She's not at all surprised by his thoroughly inhumane answer: "cancer is awesome".

Wit is a stunning piece of theater. Its only weak moments occur when Edson emphasizes a bit too heavily the unfortunate indignities, insensitivities and simple incompetencies of Dr. Bearing's hospital experience. Although, as Elyse Sommer noted in the review from the Berkshires, this can serve as a "cautionary tale" for medical professionals, it threatens to ground the play. No matter. Edson's play soars like Dr. Bearing's spirit.

For Elyse Sommer's review of Wit at Shakespeare & Co. go here

by Margaret Edson 
Directed by Derek Anson Jones 
starring Kathleen Chalfant with Walter Charles, Alec Phoenix, Paula Pizzi, Helen Stenborg, Brian J. Carter, Daniel Sarnelli, Alli Steinberg and Lisa Tharps 
Scenic Design: Myung Hee Cho 
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi 
Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski 
Original Music and Sound Design: David Van Tieghem 
MCC Theater, 120 West 28th Street (6/7 AV) (212) 727 - 7765 
opened September 17 closes October 4, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman September 18, 1998

©Copyright 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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