There’s no more tear-jerking theatrical fodder than the topic of cancer. And make no mistake: Wit — which follows John Donne specialist Vivian Bearing (Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon) from her Stage 4 ovarian cancer diagnosis all the way through to her ”pilgrimage’s last mile,” as Donne wrote — is a certified four-hankie drama. But to reduce Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner, now receiving an elegant Broadway revival, to its most clinical core does a great disservice to this lovingly crafted, profoundly moving work.
Wit is about so much more than one woman’s disease. It’s about knowledge, ignorance, humanity, love; ”the play is about simplicity and complications,” schoolteacher Edson has said. In other words, life and death. ”I know all about life and death,” Vivian tells us. ”I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any body of work in the English language.”
Of course, she knows nothing about either — not her day-to-day life of hair loss and chemotherapy, or her fast-approaching death (”Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadfull…”’ she recites robotically to calm her nerves before a particularly humiliating pelvic exam).
And it’s both heartbreaking and heartening to watch this brilliant 47-year-old woman come to the first-horrifying then matter-of-fact realization that a Ph.D. is no match for a grapefruit-size tumor, and that a 17th-century metaphysical poet won’t keep her company like straight-talking, popsicle-peddling nurse Susie (Carra Patterson).
Fearless doesn’t even begin to describe Nixon’s performance. She never leaves the stage — the same stage, incidentally, where she delivered her Tony-winning performance in Rabbit Hole in 2006. And from her ”Hi! How are you feeling today?” introduction until her rebirth-like valediction, she never fails to captivate.
Even in the shadow of the red baseball cap covering her bald head, her blue eyes flicker wildly with intelligence (she pulls out a pointer and schools us in sonnets) and rage. To paraphrase Vivian: She is, ”in short, a force.” A
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