Stefan Kanfer (review date 5-19 October 1998)
SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Leaps of Faith.” The New Leader 81, no. 11 (5-19 October 1998): 22-3.
[In the following review of the off-Broadway production, Kanfer finds Wit to be an absorbing and witty play.]
The academy and the cancer ward share many of the same terms: “exam,” “study,” “test results,” “research,” “analysis,” “course.” Yet as playwright Margaret Edson demonstrates in her new drama, Wit, context is everything. In one arena the words concern illumination and explication; in another, they are a matter of life and death.
Vivian Bearing, PhD (Kathleen Chalfant), is familiar with both the university and the hospital. A professor of English Lit. specializing in the poetry of John Donne, she comes to an unnamed clinic suffering from advanced ovarian cancer. With great calm she addresses the audience, telling us what we will see, from the first phases of her treatment to her final day on earth. “It's highly educational,” she says dispassionately. “I am learning how to suffer.” Forewarned, we still cannot look away as she is slowly robbed of her independence, her dignity and, finally, her formidable intelligence.
Dressed in one of those hospital gowns designed for maximum humiliation, and hiding her chemotherapy-caused baldness beneath a red baseball cap, Bearing is the very essence of valor. Her specialist, Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Walter Charles), intends to treat the malignancy in an aggressive manner, armed with every surgical, chemical, biological, and radiological means at his command. In this battle he is aided by a brilliant young adjutant, intern Jason Posner (Alec Phoenix). Neither man is cruel by intent. But as they go about their business Bearing ceases to be an individual to them. She becomes, instead, a subject for experimentation. Under the onslaught she makes an effort to remain indomitable, taking comfort in the verse of her beloved 17th century sonneteer:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so, For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow, Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
As the treatments grow more drastic, Bearing's thoughts slip back to a...
(The entire section is 945 words.)