Sickness is never easy to watch, and one in which the only possible outcome is death is all the more difficult.
That is the premise of “Wit” at Manhattan Theatre Club Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Though there are great lines and fierce acting by its star, Margaret Edson‘s 1999 Pulitzer-winning play is a tough watch because it is so unflinching.
From the first moments, Cynthia Nixon gives an exceptionally brave performance in her 40th play. All I could think was how naked she was, though cloaked in two hospital gowns, socks and a red baseball cap. Her head is shaved and she is there to die from stage 4 ovarian cancer.
And so she spends the next hour and 40 minutes (without intermission) going from wheelchair to gurney to hospital bed, with occasional flashbacks on her childhood and her work life. As a 5-year-old, reading Beatrix Potter, she learned the word “soporific.”
A few other characters float in and out, though the doctors are intentionally one-dimensional, and one nurse, Susie (Carra Patterson), gets a chance to shine simply because she acts like a human.
Dr. Vivian Bearing (Nixon) was a professor of 17th century metaphysical poetry, John Donne in particular. She is by definition smart and confident, and by nature aloof and acerbic. And now, stripped of her lecture hall, clothing and hair, she is undergoing experimental aggressive chemotherapy.
Cancer is not exactly the stuff of hilarity, but this does all right. The big jokes are more observational and ironic. All medical personnel seem to start every conversation with “How are you feeling today?”
The woman is dying of ovarian cancer, she has no loved ones, her hair fell out and at 47 she will die a painful death. Her last act of good will is to endure a hellacious eight-week trial cure for research. Come on geniuses, how do you think she feels?
“It is not my intention to give away the plot,” Dr. Bearing, as she prefers, tells us early on. “But I think I die at the end. They give me less than two hours.”
Like most intellectuals when presented with a problem, she needs to research it and as her oncologist delivers the grim news, she’s hatching plans to “assemble a bibliography.”
There are some deserved jabs at the idiocy of medical redundancies, such as when a patient goes from room to room and each person asks who she is.
Nixon is terrific as an arch academic, and when the socially maladroit younger doctor, who is only interested in research and has the bedside manner of a badly reared toddler, asks, “What do you do for exercise?” “Pace,” she says.
It is a wonder that Nixon can deliver this show once, never mind eight times a week; the drain of it must be incredible on her psyche. She does cry on stage, and her emotions are so real they are palpable.
Though every play should not have a happy ending, this one could have used more of an arc. As my theater companion noted, Bearing would have lost the conceit of her character a while back. Cancer has a way of beating the ego out of people.
It’s never in dispute that Professor Bearing is dying. This isn’t a spoiler. She tells us from the beginning. Yet when she does die, and Nixon sheds the two hospital gowns and bald and naked stands on the stage, it is an act of true courage. This is an actor who is willing to shed all vanity and all pretenses to get at the very essence of life and death.
And as the professor’s beloved Donne had said (and as she does say in the play) “Death be not proud.” She isn’t. She simply allows us to watch. But that still does not make it any easier.