Sporting a clean-shaven skull under a baseball cap, Cynthia Nixon takes to the stage with her stunning portrayal of a poetry scholar in the last stages of ovarian cancer. In an inexorably moving performance, Nixon captures both the pathos and droll humor at the heart of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama. While some of us are still outraged by certain “choice” comments Nixon made recently, vis-à-vis her queer identity, that anger will likely dissipate upon leaving the theater. Even if you’re not the forgiving sort, don’t miss her performance in Wit. She’s just too good.
Vivian Bearing, Nixon’s character, is a forty-something academic who has spent much of her life deconstructing the metaphysical poetry of John Donne and little of it building intimate relationships. An illustrious critic and scholar, she takes pride in being brilliant, accomplished and exacting–in sum, as she puts it (not self-mockingly), “a force.” What we witness in Wit, ultimately, is how this intellectual force prepares to confront the metaphysical terror of a Stage IV cancer diagnosis and the exacting reality of dying alone. “There is no Stage V,” she reminds us.
Illness is the great equalizer, particularly when it amounts to certain death, as Nixon paraphrased during a recent TV appearance. Even a superhuman mind, in the end, will be reduced to a body that suffers. What makes Vivian Bearing heroic in death is not her intellect, but her prodigious battle with suffering and embrace of its simplicity.
With superb direction by Lynne Meadow, minimal set design and seamlessly choreographed scene transitions, nothing intrudes on the pure emotive power of Wit: one woman’s fearful yet resolute encounter with mortality.
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, Wit is now playing through March 11 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47 Street, 212-239-6200.