Medicine, Sociology, Academia, Identity, Performance. Wit.

I was thrilled to attend an incredible preview performance of Wit at Manhattan Theatre Club, which officially opens this evening. Through the 30 Under 30 club, three girlfriends and I got great seats to this show, directed by Lynne Meadow and starring Cynthia Nixon, which far exceeded my already high expectations.

Original PlayI first learned about Wit in a medical sociology class that I took at Tufts University with Professor Martha Lang. The play, written by Margaret Edson, is told through the eyes of a no-frills poetry professor, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., with stage four ovarian cancer. Ms. Bearing’s perspective and experience walk the audience through the emotional and physical effects of a life-ending disease in the context of an otherwise strong woman’s life transferred to a hospital setting. In my fo

rmer class, we broke the script down piece by piece, allowing time for digesting and breaking it into its components; in seeing the play, I was overwhelmed by the brute force with which everything hits the audience at once. For instance, in the first scene, Ms. Bearing is put into a wheel chair and wheeled off for round one of chemo. In class, we spent more than 40 minutes discussing the patient experience of sitting in a wheelchair, creating an automatic heirarchy between doctor and patient, the helplessness and loss of autonomy experienced by the patient, the mechanical routine that followed, the patronizing language employed… you name it, we discussed. It was incredible at the time to see how such a simple, ubiquitous action says so much. When I saw Cynthia Nixon perform the opening monologue into this scene with such grace and confidence against such a stark, sterile set, it really hit me hard that this play was about illness taking over identity and pervading throughout every scene.

I don’t want to ruin the show for folks who plan to see it, but it’s no secret that the performances, especially Cynthia Nixon and Carra Paterson’s, are incredibly strong and heartfelt. The actors have truly become their roles, and although not every cancer patient or every nurse is the same, the audience can gain significant insight into the true experience of those roles without ever having personally experienced them. There is a point in the play where the nurse talks with Ms. Bearing about DNR status (see photo at left) that caused a few tears to escape because it felt so real.

The experience of being the audience looking at a cancer patient also resonated strongly because even when we walk down the street on a daily basis, we notice sick-looking people. We stare often without meaning to; we infer things about them without thinking beyond the wheelchair or air canister; we speak slower and with simplicity. We ask how they are and resort to go get ‘em type statements when we are at a loss for what else to say. We get bored over time and eventually, zone out, which Ms. Bearing draws fascinating attention to during the play. It’s humiliating all around. Awareness of those dynamics is frighteningly intriguing.

I began this ‘review’ as it related to my academic background because the the play itself certainly stems from academia and an acute sensitivity to details that create tension and resonance. Without being much of an English Literature connoisseur, I appreciated the works referenced and explained, and how they very much were filtered through Ms. Bearing’s character. I also appreciated the playwright’s intentional exploration of social groups and norms, which she both showed and included pieces of in the narration to, on one level, increase the possibility that the audience would recognize these themes and, on another level, to show the awareness (or lack thereof) of the players within the build context of their roles.

I could go on, but I’d rather have you see the play and share your thoughts with me or everyone in the comments section below. I had a wonderful conversation with one of my friends who accompanied me about a huge range of topics surfacing in this play, and I’m eager to hear what others get out of it. I can’t promise that it’s a show for everyone, but I can promise that you won’t regret seeing it.

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