The word for today is “Soporific”: causing or tending to cause sleep/a sleep inducing drug. A most important word, one among many that one time playwright Margaret Edson features in the excellent production of WIT at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre fluidly directed by Lynne Meadow.
Starring Cynthia Nixon, WIT has finally reached Broadway fourteen years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999, its landmark Off-Broadway production which starred Kathleen Chalfant and the HBO film directed by Mike Nichols with Emma Thompson portraying Dr. Vivian Bearing Ph.D – an intelligent, priggish, loner of a woman dying of ovarian cancer who has become a human “guinea pig” for an experimental research chemo program – 8 rounds at full dosage – at a university hospital.
In a flashback, as a young girl, she is reading a Beatrix Potter book about bunnies as her strict, intelligent and not very involved father reads his newspaper as he instructs his daughter about this new word – “Soporific” – having her figure out its meaning and using it; forever imprinting it on her mind. We see where her tenacity, aloofness and love of language is born planting the seeds for her love of the 17th century poet John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” which she teaches in a university course.
It is only towards the end of her agonizing treatment that the word reemerges when she is in need of morphine to help ease the horrendous pain she is going through.
WIT not only shows her descent into death with a brittle humor that Ms. Nixon has perfected but it is a scathing indictment – a awake up call of sorts as to how she is off handedly treated by her oncologist Dr. Kelekian (Michael Countryman) and Dr. Posner (Greg Keller) an oncology research fellow a former student. It is brutally honest and frightening real. And darkly humorous.
There are two people who care about her, managing to break through Dr. Vivian Bearing’s almost impenetrable wall of isolation: E.M. Ashford, D. Phil (Suzanne Bertish) whose two scenes (especially the second when she comforts the dying Dr. Bearing with “The Runaway Bunny”) are perhaps the best in the production and Susie Monahan, her nurse (Carra Patterson) who explains the meaning of DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) to her.
A “steadfast and resolute” Ms. Nixon sporting a red baseball cap covering her bald head displays a brittleness that keeps us at bay. As she nears death she finds what she has been avoiding all her life.
She speaks directly to us in a rather cold manner reminiscent of the cold bedside manner exhibited by her doctors as she goes through endless stupid questions, tests, and other physical indignities where the side effects are worse than the disease itself.
WIT is a truthful, finely layered and spot on depiction of what it’s like to suffer through such an illness. If anything can help it’s having a large dose of humor.
www.witonbroadway.com Photo: Joan Marcus
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