Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wit @The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Twenty-one years ago, Margret Edson wrote a play drawing on her few years of work in a cancer and AIDS research hospital.  Four years later, the piece was placed on stage and has gone on to touch the souls and hearts of millions around the world.  Exploring the themes of life, death, and a laugh, Wit finally gets the star treatment that it deserves - a Broadway theatre and a mega star actress.  Cynthia Nixon pulls out all of the stops (returning to the Manhattan Theatre Club after winning a Tony Award for Rabbit Hole) to deliver a truly beautiful performance full of heart, soul, and, of course, wit.
Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., a strong, educated woman, has just been given only two hours to give one last lecture before her stage four ovarian cancer takes over.  Taking the audience on a journey of her life, her childhood, college life, and career all come into focus in order to better understand how life ultimately leads to death.  From a young age, Vivian is fascinated by words - each word has a meaning and is very clear.  This love carries her forward to study the works of poet John Donne and eventually teach his Holy Sonnets as a poetry professor.  It is soon discovered that all of her knowledge on Donne and words will not help as much as she may have wanted when the studier becomes the studied.  It is now up to Vivian to piece together the meaning of life before her time runs out.
This deeply moving piece is fully realized by Cynthia Nixon (of television’s Sex in the City fame) as Vivian.  As a cancer survivor, Nixon has a special connection to this role that shines through each and every scene.  Her transformation throughout the course of the piece is a master lesson in acting - turning Vivian into a master professor in all forms of art.  Clearly defining each moment in Vivian’s life from five years old to world class professor to cancer patient, Nixon takes a challenging piece and turns it into one grand poem.  Nixon delivers the performance of a life time (not to mention how stunning she looks even in a hospital gown and baseball cap)!  Around Nixon is a wonderful ensemble helping tell the tale of Vivian to all who enter the theatre.  The hospital staff trio is made up of Michael Countryman (Mary Stuart), Greg Keller (Manhattan Theatre Club’s Cradle and All), and Carra Patterson (Shakespeare in the Park’s Measure for Measure).  All three work well together to show the different dynamics between doctors, interns, nurses, and patients.  Patterson stands out as Vivian’s main nurse, Susie Monahan.  With a warm gentle smile and a huge heart, Susie is able to see past Vivian’s rough exterior and allow her to open up.  These two actresses left not a dry eye in the theatre, when the time comes for Vivian to explore the themes of death over an ice pop.  Also delivering a lovely performance is Suzanne Bertish (The Moliére Comedies) as Vivian’s college professor, E. M. Ashford.  While this role can be played very cold, Bertish transformed the character into an extremely demanding professor whose main lesson is to not let work control your life.  While Vivian should have paid closer attention, Ashford is there as her support system till the very end.  This small ensemble works really closely to create a story that is timeless, powerful, and unforgettable.
Relying on highly talented actors, this production of Wit took a simplistic approach to the design that paid off big time.  Featuring four posts and a wall, the scenic design by Santo Loquasto (Relatively Speaking) truly allowed for the text of the piece to shine.  Not allowing for the audience to get distracted by flashy sets, Loquasto paints the perfect backdrop for the piece’s many different locations.  Lighting this set with clever, yet simple lighting is designer Peter Kaczorowski (The Road to Mecca).  With nice lighting that always appeared to have Vivian as the brightest spot on stage, Kaczorowski created the concept of a lecture within a play wonderfully.  The whole package was topped with a bow that has Lynne Meadow’s (Collected Stories) name on it.  Directing a piece like Wit can be quite a bit of a challenge; however, Meadow’s fine direction gave the piece the right tempo and grace that it needed.  All of these elements brought justice to the words of playwright Margret Edson who crafted the script in a moving and profoundly funny way.
While it may have been many years in the works, Wit finally leaps onto the Broadway stage with top notch acting and beautiful design and direction.  In a time when cancer research is at an all time high around the world, Wit proves to touch the lives of all who come in contact with this piece.  Cancer has touched the life of almost everyone nationwide - whether you know someone who has the disease or if you yourself have had/have the disease - and therefore, Wit has the power to touch the heart and soul of all who step foot into the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Review By: Courtney Labossiere

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