Literature Saves. That would be my bumper sticker if I put such things on my car. Literature transforms us, elates us, gives us the illusion of immortality. It is heady stuff, to find truth in a poem, to feel that shock of recognition. In Margaret Edson's wonderful play Wit, Vivian Bearing has dedicated her life to words, to the holy sonnets of John Donne and though they cannot prevent her death, they have sustained her in life.
Wit provides the audience no feeling of suspense. Vivian Bearing, played by the luminous and powerful Kathleen Chalfant, tells us in the first moments of the play that her time left on earth is being measured by a "two-hour glass." She has been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive strain of ovarian cancer which does not respond to the treatment she is given. Drama requires conflict, and the certainty of death is not inherently dramatic. What compels the audience through this play is the way in which those last moments are spent, and the dignity this remarkable woman is able to exhibit in the midst of frustration, shame and fear. Her doctors seem much more interested in her use as data for their studies than they are in her recovery. The playwright, Margaret Edson, who worked on the cancer inpatient unit of a research hospital, has written a play drenched with insight into the terrifying and often humiliating experience of patients at their most vulnerable.
In one of my favorite lines, Bearing tells us about her initial hospital experiences, remarking that "the attention was flattering ... for the first 5 minutes ... . Now I know how poems feel." Her body has become text; she is pored over, dissected for meaning. The difference is that as a professor, she loved the works she studied and taught. There was a reverence and a joy for Donne's poems, while the doctors who are treating her coldly reduce her to numbers on a chart.
I was unconvinced at times by the cruel insensitivity of one of her doctors. While I have had many bad doctors, they tended to be more artful in their badness. Maybe I've just been lucky. The young Fellow, who could perhaps have been played with more subtlety by Alec Phoenix, happens also to be a former student of Professor Bearing. Receiving a pelvic exam from this man is therefore more grisly than it would otherwise have been. Now a patient, Professor Bearing is the property of the doctors; they poke and prod her, measure her excretions and remember only as an afterthought to converse with her. She jokes that it is her job now to "lie still and look cancerous," but she is right when she says that her "treatment endangers her health." It also endangers her spirit.
The one person who shows the most compassion and gives the best care is a nurse played by Paula Pizzi. There is a moment in the play in which this nurse lovingly smoothes hand lotion onto the hands of the unconscious Professor Bearing. This act is startling for its tenderness, which is given so freely, and which is so absent in the care by the doctors. It is an act of pure generosity because she can get nothing for it, not even appreciation, as Professor Bearing is not conscious of its being done. There is something saintly in this character, and in the people who give such care to the dying.
I wonder if some of the literary discussion will be dull for people who weren't English majors. (I know there must be some of you out there.) Personally, I love to debate the relative merits of commas and semi-colons. I relished the flashback in which we got to see her teach; we saw the power of her personality and intellect in her lecture. In another flashback, we see her as an eager undergrad who listens to her English professor rail against "inauthentic ... hysterical punctuation." The audience is given the privilege of seeing her early spark and passion, which her doctors never see; for them she is reduced to a disease.
In the set design Myung Hee Cho makes clever use of the curtains found in hospitals with their recognizable metallic whoosh. The director, Derek Anson Jones, achieves movement and a supple pace. Time sometimes flies and sometimes floats in this play, as the rapid deterioration of Professor Bearing's condition is punctuated by the clarity of flashbacks. Cancer may end her life, but it does not define it; she is more than the sum of her parts.
The last moment of the play, which (do not fear, dear Reader) I will not divulge, is utterly breathtaking. It might seem surprising that a play about a woman dying of cancer does not ask the audience to cry throughout. But this play does not have time for tears. It keeps you laughing as you grow more and more attached to the sometimes prickly Professor Bearing and conserves your emotion till the end. The last moment of the play affected me so deeply that for quite some time I could not clap for what was surely one of the finest plays I have seen.
Wit is playing at the Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street, just east of Union Square Park. Performances are Tues-Sat at 8, Wed, Sat and Sun at 3. Tickets are $49.50 and $35.