Making “Wit” Work
Director Lynne Meadow juggles laughter and tears in a play about cancer, life, and death
In retrospect, it’s a very strange place for a laugh.
Near the end of Margaret Edson’s Wit, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play now making its Broadway debut with Manhattan Theater Club, Vivian Bearing is just a few heartbeats from death. We’ve known this was coming from the very first scene, when she strolls on in a hospital gown, bald from chemotherapy, and tell us she has terminal cancer. But somehow, even as she takes us through her arduous hospital routine, it’s easy to overlook that Vivian’s dying. She’s just so forceful, wryly commenting on the silliness of medical bureaucracy and reflecting on her passion for the poetry of John Donne. Yes, her reveries are interrupted by tests and examinations, but still, she seems bigger than that. (This is partly due to the gusto of Cynthia Nixon’s performance.)
Eventually, though, just like Vivian promised, death slides into the room. The walls of her intellect and humor crack open, and her pain is laid bare. But just when she’s at her weakest, she’s visited by another character. For a few moments, they have a tender scene that’s dotted with intellectual curiosity. There’s even a clever observation about a children’s book that pulls a giant laugh from the audience.
And it seems odd, somehow, to be laughing when the worst has arrived.
For director Lynne Meadow—who is also MTC’s artistic director—these conflicting tones are exactly the point. “Wit is hardly a naturalistic play, there’s no kitchen sink up there, but everything about it is extremely real,” she says. “If you think about living, if you think about any experience you go through, there are always at least two tones going on at any given moment. I really tried to create the reality of those situations.”
In some scenes, this gives the performance a striking rhythm. We might begin with the chaos of an emergency room, with technicians and nurses screaming at each other, but then we’ll notice another character literally rise up out of the madness in a state of calm, taking a very different journey in the exact same setting. The measured slowness doesn’t eradicate the manic hospital energy, but by contradicting it, it asks us to consider two emotions at once.
Early scenes balance the professionalism of the hospital staff with Vivian’s shock that she’s being treated like just another patient. Her pointed glances at the audience are funnier because they’re like little balloons rising from the rapid-fire efficiency of her wheelchair being zipped from place to place.
But Meadow didn’t necessarily try to make this metaphorical point. “I just tried to have everybody in the hospital do their jobs,” she says. “[Vivian is] very busy needing to tell us who she is and how important she is, and they are busy doing their jobs. They’re important people and they have important tests to take, and they don’t care that you have a doctorate in 17th-century English literature. They just need to get your chest x-ray done.”
But ultimately, of course, these practical moments point to something bigger, which Meadow calls “a story about transformation.” She adds, “In the process of going through [the play,] Vivian actually undergoes a tremendous transformation in her life and how she will live her life, even if it’s only the last five minutes of her life. She achieves something, which is why I think the play is so uplifting. It’s ultimately a very life-affirming play, probably because it deals with death.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor