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HBO's 'Wit': A Touching, Unsentimental Look at Dying

March 23, 2001|Howard Rosenberg

"This is my play's last scene," says cancer-ravaged Vivian Bearing almost flippantly in "Wit," which gives those high-stepping Academy Award nominees something to live up to.

Just as Bearing is told in "Wit" that her experimental treatment "is the strongest thing we have to offer you," HBO's tailored-for-TV rendering of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play represents drama at its mightiest.

"Wit" fractures the funny bone first, then the heart, locating just the right emotional pitch when somehow finding comedy as well as poignancy in dying. It triumphs on every level, from Emma Thompson's commanding, shaven-head presence as Bearing to the adaptation she co-wrote with director Mike Nichols to his staging that draws viewers into the sterile, enclosing whiteness of the hospital where this brilliant scholar's redemption takes place as her plume of life steadily shrinks.

As it does, deep sadness sinks in, even though Nichols' only concession to cheap sentiment is a fleeting flash of goo just before the ending credits, and Bearing remains witty even when gasping for life.

Playwright Margaret Edson's own story is quite unusual. Now a committed elementary school teacher in Atlanta, she wrote "Wit" while working in a bike shop, drawing from her experience as a low-level drone at a research hospital. This is her first play, she says, and her last. Its 1995 debut at South Coast Repertory was followed by an acclaimed run in New York, where Bearing was played by Kathleen Chalfant, and later Judith Light.

Others will have to measure the stage play against Saturday's TV version, in which Edson did not take part. Yet there are crucial moments of quietness in this new "Wit"--reflective pauses that punctuate the narrative--that probably could not exist on the stage. "You cannot imagine how time can be so still," Bearing says softly at one point.

The story's intimacy and interior quality, too, are ideal for television, as Bearing returns to earlier years via flashbacks, and makes the audience her only confidant with dark, often wickedly wry asides to the camera. "I'm learning to suffer," she says about her education as a patient.

Bearing is a haughtily brilliant college professor--and renowned authority on the 17th century metaphysical poetry of John Donne ("Death be not proud . . .")--when diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. There is no Stage 5. Later bending academe's "publish or perish" axiom to her own situation, she wisecracks: "Published and perished."

Before beginning a highly aggressive and experimental type of chemotherapy treatment, she finds herself in the degrading position of getting a pelvic exam, feet in stirrups, from Dr. Jason Posner (Jonathan M. Woodward), a bright young research fellow who took her challenging poetry class as an undergraduate ("I wish I'd given him an A").

Soon she's reeling from nausea and puking her guts out from the chemo. Bald and browless, yet not defenseless, her biting wit persists in the face of clinical dispassion by Posner and other unfeeling medical personnel as her chemo treatment ("the full dose," she reminds us) becomes more agonizing then her disease.

The supporting cast does fine work behind Thompson's transcendent Bearing, who appears to be a friendless loner when we meet her, her closest companion being the long-dead Donne, whose lines she will see in a different context as her cancer worsens. Thompson's performance has great depth and variety, and she inhabits Bearing's acute mind and dying body indelibly. Essential to the success of "Wit" is her subtlety in noting the layers of irony weighing on Bearing. She's a highly disciplined scholar being enveloped by an undisciplined disease. She's a dehumanized lump, a data-yielding specimen in the view of the hospital's generic labcoats whose worship of medical terms matches her own devotion to the High Sonnets of Donne. Moreover, the young Posner's irritating preference for research over humanity, she notes, coincides with her own.

And finally, as Bearing grows chalky, cadaverous and ever vulnerable in this medicinal warehouse, she wishes that someone would treat her with the kindness she withheld from her students as a cold, patronizing, single-minded academic.

She gets it from Susie Monahan (Audra McDonald), a warmhearted nurse who is the antithesis of Posner and his steely researcher boss, Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd). Quite touching is a scene with Susie and Bearing sharing a Popsicle while discussing what should be done should Bearing's heart stop.

Even more tender, and penetrating to the bone, is Bearing's hazy bedside meeting with her aged academic mentor (Eileen Atkins). It comes after Bearing has already surrendered her dignity and thick armor of erudition, their delicately mounted reunion suggesting as much can be learned from a classic children's story about a bunny as from their beloved Donne. This is bravura television.

The full dose.


Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted by e-mail at

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