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Bearing the soul of ‘Wit’

Cynthia Nixon gives a brave, nuanced performance as a scholar with stage 4 cancer.

“Wit” is a thinking man’s play that rests squarely on the shoulders of its leading lady. In MTC’s current production on Broadway, that role is bravely undertaken by firebrand Cynthia Nixon. Not that any other cast member is a slouch; each role is individually carved out and well-performed, but that’s ultimately inconsequential.

Nixon plays Vivian Bearing, an English professor who is also a lead scholar of the metaphysical works of John Dunne. Juxtaposing his thoughts on mortality against her own experiences with stage 4 ovarian cancer, Bearing breaks the fourth wall to explain her dissolution to the audience. After all — she admits a moment after exposing her immanent vulnerability — she is first and foremost a teacher.

The setting is sparse, with entire environments insinuated by such ornaments as a desk, bed or chair. Despite a few pillars giving it depth, and a rotating wall conveying transitions of time and space, the Friedman stage often seems much larger than necessary for this intimate work. Without much to look at, you’re led to focus on the sharply written dialogue and Nixon’s nuanced expressions. Spanning 100 minutes without an intermission, this task does liken to attending a collegiate seminar. There’s plenty to learn and experience, but it isn’t a play to see for entertainment’s sake.

What you do want to go for is the talent. Nixon brings what is essential to this Pulitzer Prize-winning piece: the subtle, searching, yearning side of Bearing — who is, after all, the soul of “Wit.”

 
 
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