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Wednesday, 01 February 2012 20:50

Broadway Review: WIT

Written by
Cynthia Nixon Cynthia Nixon Photo: Joan Marcus

Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize winning play, Wit was originally produced in 1995 at South Coast Repertory Company in Costa Mesa, California and then off-Broadway.  This new production, being presented by Manhattan Theater Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, marks the play's Broadway premiere.

Victoria Bearing is a professor of English literature with a focus on the English poet, John Donne.  She has also been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer.  Bearing is alone in the world.  She has chosen a life of solitude and protects it with a harsh veneer of wit.  She wears it like a suit of armor, which she builds with snide asides and an air of intellectual superiority.

Cynthia Nixon is a triumph as Bearing.   Ms. Nixon's performance starts out broad and bombastic as the egotistical professor. She sustains this well into the evening; it creates the necessary contrast to the whimpering, dying, vulnerable woman we ultimately see.

The play begins with the overtly friendly, smiling professor inquiring as to her guests’ (the audience) well-being in exaggerated and insincere mimicry of the medical establishment to which she has become a prisoner.  Ms. Edson’s play makes use of exposition directly to the audience.  Bearing’s droll humor is evidenced by her pronouncement “It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end.”  

Using John Donne's work, specifically his Holy Sonnet Six, Edson explores what it means to face death. 

“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe.”

Suzanne Bertish plays Victoria’s college professor EM Ashford.   Flashback,  Victoria is 22 and in college.  EM is chastising her for her use of a text of the Holy Sonnet Six which has been “inauthentically punctuated.”  After this scene, you may never think of a comma, or death, the same way again.  Even while EM is dressing her down you can't help but feel the empathy and affection she has for the young Victoria.  Ms. Bertish's performance is commanding, warm, and genuine.  

Victoria’s medical team are researchers who poke her, prod her, and generally treat her with the same respect they would a lab specimen. In the dual roles of her primary doctor and her father, Michael Countryman does a solid job creating a man who shows some modicum of concern for his patient.  As Jason, the eager young doctor in training, and a former student of Dr. Bearings, Greg Keller is wonderful as the bumbling man of science who has to be reminded that his subject is a human being.  The one medical professional who does treat Victoria with care and respect is her nurse, Susie, played with the requisite empathy by Carra Patterson.  

Director Lynn Meadow is to be commended for the performances she gets from this talented cast.  She has kept Ms. Nixon just this side of obnoxious and that's an important distinction here.  The same could be said of some of the other characters, Jason for example.  It’s a fine line between character and caricature.  

Ms. Edson’s play is beautifully written.  She exquisitely captures the final moments and thoughts of this ebbing life force. She succinctly conveys a paradox of the dying process as Victoria lays still in a hospital room.  “You cannot imagine how time…can be…so still.  It hangs. It weighs. And yet there is so little of it. It goes so slowly, and yet it is so scarce.”

The scenic design by Santo Loquasto is minimal and representational, consisting mostly of medical “furniture.”  The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski is subtle and effective in setting the mood.

If you are concerned about seeing Wit due to the maudlin subject matter, hesitate no further.  You will need a hanky handy, equally for tears of laughter, as you will for tears of sadness.

View full production credits at

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 February 2012 22:38