Thursday, June 24, 2021

At Wits’ End: The Poignant Brilliance of “Wit”

The 1995 play called Wit, written by a teacher who’d once worked in a research hospital, was  a triumph for South Coast Repertory, the premiere theatre in SoCal’s Orange County. When Margaret Edson, who had never written a play, sent her script to 60 of America’s regional theatre companies, most turned it down flat. But South Coast Rep saw in this story of a lauded college professor facing aggressive experimental treatment for ovarian cancer a promising stage vehicle. SCR’s production went on to win major awards from the Los Angeles theatre community, after which the play moved east to New Haven and New York. There it swept up additional honors, including the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

 The intimacy of Wit’s drama, along with the bleakness of its subject matter, meant that Hollywood didn’t rush to snap up the film rights. But in 2001 HBO put its clout behind a TV movie, securing the services of Mike Nichols as director (two years before his triumphant TV staging of Angels in America), and Emma Thompson in the central role of Professor Vivian Bearing, with Nichols and  Thompson collaborating on adapting Edson’s play to the small screen. By all accounts they didn’t change much. The play’s flashbacks to classroom memories and its surreal shifts in perspective (with the ailing, now bald-headed professor sometimes standing in for her younger self) remain gloriously intact.

 What makes Wit more than a weepie is its sophisticated handling of the leading role. Professor Bearing, age 53, is far more than a victim of an unrelenting disease and a sometimes unfeeling medical establishment. In her college classroom, where she lectured undergraduates on the subtleties of 17th century English poetry, she has been a bit of a tyrant, though one who hangs tough out of respect for the poets she introduces. It’s no accident that her specialty is the metaphysical verse of John Donne, who was by turns a bon vivant, a lover, a churchman, and a deep thinker obsessed with a precise use of language. One of Donne’s great themes is the meaning of death, as seen in the famous “Death Be Not Proud,” a sonnet that becomes in this drama an ongoing source of debate. (Even its punctuation, it seems, proves controversial.) Donne also famously weighed the connection between soul and body, which underscores the play’s juxtaposition of a woman concerned for her essence and the medical team’s determination, at all costs, to save her corporeal self. One of the drama’s most powerful moments comes when a sympathetic young oncologist who once earned an A- in Professor Bearing’s poetry course now seeks to overturn every ethical consideration in the name of medical science.

 Years ago I saw Wit on the stage and was duly impressed. But Nichols’ TV version benefits from the heightened realism the camera brings, ushering us into a realistic hospital environment and forcing us to watch, up close, as Professor Bearing’s body begins to shut down. In a way that the stage doesn’t much allow, it rubs our noses in the indignities of illness—the ungainly feet-in-stirrups position that most women (but not men) have experienced, the gut-searing bouts of nausea, the casual assaults on basic modesty, the final desperate need for simple solace. One of the play’s most touching moments comes when a former mentor, stopping by to see the patient on her way to visit a great-grandchild, forgets about intellectual rigor and soothes Professor Bearing with a simple children’s book. Mike Nichols’ talent as a director of comedy extends here to the human comedy in all its poignancy.  



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