September 18, 1998
'Wit': Science and Poetry Face Death in a Hospital Room
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By PETER MARKS
it" is the chilling chronicle of a professor dying an agonizing death in a teaching hospital. The instructor is an expert on the 17th-century poet John Donne, which proves entirely apt, because the performance at the center of the play is pure poetry.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Kathleen Chalfant as a dying literature professor in the Long Wharf Theater production of "Wit" at the MCC Theater in Chelsea
Kathleen Chalfant, the veteran stage actress best known for her work in "Angels in America," draws around herself the brittle, unsparing aura of Vivian Bearing, the dying teacher, like a frost-encrusted cloak. Vivian is a vastly recognizable character out of academia: intimidatingly disciplined, accustomed to pushing herself to the maximum and expecting her students to do the same. A deep love of literature and a career devoted to analyzing Donne's poems down to their punctuation marks have both sharpened her mental prowess and limited her capacity for empathy; like a miler in tip-top condition, she runs so far ahead of the pack, she no longer thinks of herself as part of it.
That makes her a wonderfully compelling subject for Margaret Edson's brutally human and beautifully layered new play, which opened last night at the MCC Theater in Chelsea. Ms. Edson, an Atlanta elementary school teacher who once worked in a hospital oncology unit, is herself a lover of mind-expanding irony: she finds poetry in the reading of a sonogram and science in the deconstruction of a sonnet. It is no coincidence, either, that the poem Vivian made the subject of her doctoral thesis contains Donne's immortal valediction, "Death be not proud."
To be sure, "Wit," directed with care and clarity by Derek Anson Jones, is an eggheady piece, continually drawing our attention to parallels in the worlds of words and wards. (One of the satisfactions is Ms. Edson's unabashed crush on language and her skillful demonstration of the ways in which words both humble and inspire.) But the play never totally leaves its senses. By the moment of the stunning, final fadeout -- in this instance, actually, a flare-up, thanks to the gifted lighting designer Michael Chybowski -- you feel both enlightened and, in a strange way, enormously comforted.
"Wit" was presented last season by the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven with the identical cast and creative team; it has only improved in its New York restaging. One advantage here is MCC's claustrophobic space on West 28th Street. In a larger theater in New Haven, Ms. Chalfant, dressed in a hospital gown and robe, and wearing a red baseball cap to hide the effects of her character's chemotherapy, seemed to discourse into a void. In the more compact theater, it's as if we are sitting in Vivian's hospital room, sharing her trials rather than merely witnessing them. Ms. Chalfant, too, is more at ease now; the proximity appears to invigorate her.
Set in a research hospital in an unnamed city -- Ms. Edson smartly provides only as much biographical detail as is absolutely necessary -- "Wit" is a turning of the tables, a case of a detached examiner who becomes an increasingly needy specimen. In the hospital, it's the doctors who are emotionally at a remove. Vivian's academic accomplishments mean zilch to them. What they care about is the viability of her innards, her ability to withstand the onslaught of the toxic chemicals they pump into her body to try to thwart her advanced ovarian cancer. Vivian, predictably, views her struggle as a graduate-level course in humility. "It's highly educational," she says of the degrading, painful rounds of medical procedures. "I am learning how to suffer."
Intriguingly, though, "Wit" is not so much concerned with coming to terms with death, as with love. Vivian reveals little about her history outside the classroom; no one, for instance, comes to see her in the hospital. She neither expects nor rejects the kindness of others; accepting or giving affection was extraneous to her life of the mind, muscles she never exercised. In this regard she meets her match in her ambitious young doctor, Jason Posner (the appealing Alec Phoenix), a brilliant if heartless cancer researcher who looks upon patients as little more than complex structures to be decoded -- not unlike the way Vivian seizes on Donne's poems.
It's not, however, the intense cerebration, in her career or treatment, that ultimately consoles Vivian. "Wit" is an exploration of what transpires when words fail, as they always must, of how, in the end, art and science are equally useless, equally detached. No, Vivian at last wants only to be enfolded in the arms of another caring being, embodied in Ms. Edson's play by one representative of the medical world, her nurse Susie Monahan (Paula Pizzi), and one from the academic, her mentor, the professor E. M. Ashford (Helen Stenborg).
As played so warmly and affectingly by Ms. Pizzi and Ms. Stenborg, the nurse and the teacher are almost fantasy figures; you would want each of them at your own bedside. The nurse's defense of Vivian's dignity, in the face of Dr. Posner's excessive efforts to keep her alive, is both gentle and ferocious, an unvarnished expression of respect. Ms. Stenborg, too, is sublime in a heartbreaking, final scene -- perhaps a delusion of Vivian's confabulating mind -- as she kicks off her shoes, climbs into the hospital bed and reads to her dying acolyte from the tender children's classic "The Runaway Bunny."
Ms. Chalfant's performance, as intelligent and uncompromising as you're likely to come across on a New York stage these days, is what matters here the most, of course. She hooks us with her openness to the closed corners in Vivian's life, her own pleasure in finding the sense of occasion in a woman's last, great struggle. Ms. Chalfant is as convinced of the urgency of Vivian's story as Vivian is in the vitality of Donne's poems. And she'll convince you, too.