A new production of Wit, Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a dying cancer patient, is particularly poignant as the COVID-19 pandemic metastasizes into its third year having killed more than five million people. The play feels even more immediate as it stars an actor who is currently under treatment for advanced-stage cancer. When the opening planned for March 2020 was put on hold along with everything else, Erin Cronican didn’t know whether she’d still be alive on New Year’s Day 2022.
The play isn’t fundamentally about sickness or death, though. It’s about what makes us human – specifically, as self-aware integrations of the physical and the intellectual. As such it doesn’t need the showy high-tech trappings of so many of today’s Broadway spectaculars. The Seeing Place Theater’s off-off-Broadway production exemplifies the expansive possibilities of small-scale theater, in two ways.
First, Wit doesn’t call for fancy sets or whiz-bang technology. Accordingly (and in line with off-off-Broadway budgets) the set is pretty much just a movable hospital bed. That’s all Cronican and a fine supporting cast need for an impassioned portrayal of the last months of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a respected professor of English literature specializing in the dense 17th-century metaphysical poetry of John Donne. The story shows that while it’s possible to live a life of the mind, the body’s limitations will eventually catch up with us and bring us down, whether we’re felled by illness in the “prime of life” or we live to be 99.
Second, this closely examined human story focuses on one fictional but alarmingly vivid individual. Broadway shows, even when they do focus on one character, seem to need to apologize for it with extravagant production and conceptualization even if the result is vapidity. Still, Wit (sometimes styled W;t) had a Broadway run in 2012 starring Cynthia Nixon, after a long-running off-Broadway staging in 1998-2000 and a 1999 Pulitzer Prize.
The play examines the interior life of a complex human being as she bears up (can the name “Bearing” be a coincidence?) under cancer’s assault. As such it’s much more than a meditation on death. Time, reflects Dr. Bearing, “goes so slowly and yet is so scarce.” What do we do with the time we have? Since the age of five she “always made it a custom to treat words with respect,” and the study of poetry has led to a full life for her even as she forwent the possibility of a family and a traditional domestic life. So the play is on one level a celebration of the life of the mind.
On the other hand, through the character of the young Dr. Posner (a sharp turn by Robin Friend), a onetime student of Dr. Bearing’s, Edson cautions against focusing so hard on research and data that one loses one’s human empathy. It’s the unlettered nurse Susie, in a rich performance by director Brynn Asha Walker, who treats the patient with the love and respect we all deserve.
Cronican mesmerizes as the suffering scholar – acerbic, sarcastic, funny at times, and acutely sensitive to the irony of the terrible toll taken on her health by the aggressive experimental chemotherapy intended to help her. Her Dr. Bearing has all the multidimensionality of a person with a self-assured and self-examining nature. Startlingly lively explications of some of Donne’s poetry, sometimes in flashback scenes with students, deepens the portrait.
Wit is a play for our times as much as it was for the turn of the 20th century. That’s sad, as cancer remains a prime killer despite all our science. But it’s a timeless story in a deeper way, a celebration of the caring and fellow feeling that can never go fully out of fashion.
Rather than eschew the artifice of theater, the production makes wise use of it. Soundscapes (by Walker) of music and muffled voices evoke the unanswered questions sickness and death always pose. Projections (by Phoenix Lion) of twisting phrases from the script emphasize not only Dr. Bearing’s frustrating search for meaning in her predicament but also the comfort she takes in poetry.
Yes, she focuses on a sonnet from Donne’s “Divine Meditations” bemoaning the unfairness of being “damned” when those more deserving of it are not. But at the same time we sense that the metaphysical poets’ heightened use of language in the service of density of thought is what has given her life meaning. It’s easy to imagine her taking some comfort in a line from another Donne sonnet: “Those are my best days, when I shake with fear.”
Cronican’s absorbing scenic design and Scott Monnin’s subtle lighting enhance the action, which Walker directs smoothly. The result is a remarkably active depiction of one character’s interiority, with the other characters representing both objective reality and the splintered facets of human nature that Dr. Bearing and John Donne never stopped trying to comprehend.
Wit runs (if public health allows) through 16 January 2022. Visit The Seeing Place online for schedule and tickets. This is a production you won’t want to miss.