The Amazing Grace of Margaret Edson’s Wit

Wit , the stunning first play by Margaret Edson, has transferred to the Union Square Theater, and long may it triumph there. When I say this is Ms. Edson’s “first” play, don’t be put off by that: Wit might be her 20th, so remarkable is her achievement.

Who is the mysterious Ms. Edson? Her fine and-yes!- witty drama is uncompromising in its spare, rigorous discipline. It is about nothing less than the poetry of John Donne, the obsessions of medical research, the power of language and the meaning of life. Or facing death-without, thank God, the usual cheap sentiment. “It is not my intention to give away the plot,” Ms. Edson’s acerbic heroine tells the audience, “but I think I die in the end.”

A witty play about death (and 17th-century metaphysics) is … unusual. We might resist an evening out in death’s company, however literary. Half a century ago, the co-producer of Death of a Salesman desperately tried to persuade Arthur Miller to change the title. How to sell death when, as the poets say, death is a downer?

Unless, of course, it’s an uplifting Hollywood weepy-Meryl Streep-Susan Sarandon-Shirley MacLaine shining through . Every week, our TV culture is propped up by dramas about near-dead people shining through. Broadway has had its share of mortal mush ( Who’s Life Is It, Anyway? , The Shadowbox ). Why, in Life Is Beautiful , humor even brings us shining through the death camps. Call it “Holocaust Italian-Style”; the indomitable human spirit can overcome anything . Can it?

Wit is clearly of a different, higher order. Its dying heroine, Vivian Bearing, a 50-year-old professor and an expert on the poetry of John Donne, isn’t particularly likable. Asked whether she’s tough enough to take the vile battering of still-experimental chemotherapy, the question is redundant. She’s a tough old bird, friendless and alone-without anyone in her life, it seems. Not that this bright, difficult, steely, amused spinster-professor could give a hoot.

One of the major achievements of the play is how we come to care for this stranger in our midst whom we scarcely know. It’s as if the friendless heroine makes hundreds of friends with each performance whether she likes it or not. And for that, we must thank the magnificent Kathleen Chalfant as Vivian. You may remember her as the Mormon matriarch of Angels in America . She’s giving the performance of her career here. She first greets us jauntily in a hospital robe and red baseball cap. Vivian is in Stage 4 of ovarian cancer. (There is no Stage 5.) The cap covers her baldness-the outcome of the course of chemotherapy. But what strikes us immediately is Ms. Chalfant’s beady aliveness . Her Vivian is a fearsome teacher, not one to suffer fools gladly, if at all. “Shakespeare,” she reminds us patronizingly. “I trust the name is familiar!”

Ms. Chalfant inhabits the role completely. When, at first, several audience members at the performance I attended laughed too hard, too knowingly, at Vivian’s ironic asides, the actress raised a surprised, mildly disapproving eyebrow, as if to say in character: “Wit is not uproarious. Wit is dry and as sharp as a surgeon’s knife. Settle down, if you please!” Which everyone surely did.

Vivian Bearing is a coldly brilliant academic for whom textual analysis and philosophical speculation are everything. For her, the study of Donne’s astonishing sonnets-“Death be not proud”-is made for its own intellectual sake and pleasure. Mental acuity and learning are prized at the cost of “feeling,” or a simple, vulnerable emotional response-the humane. What happens, then, when Vivian herself is dying?

In a splendid memory scene between the young Vivian and her college teacher (Helen Stenborg in a beautifully appealing performance), an intense academic dispute about a semicolon in a Donne text takes on the professorial perspective of life or death. In that cloistered, donnish sense, Wit sometimes resembles the more arcane amusements of Tom Stoppard’s new play about the poet A.E. Housman, The Invention of Love .

But Wit ‘s dramatist, Ms. Edson, is onto something else: the point where art and science meet (and where, in the mortal end, neither can help us). In a schematic move-which nevertheless doesn’t weaken the play significantly-Vivian’s clumsy young doctor in the oncology unit is as impersonally obsessed with medical research as she is with academic scholarship. Her pleasure is Donne; his, the fatal mystery of replicating cancer cells. It is called, he explains, “immortality in culture.”

Their bond, if it exists at all, is in pure knowledge, the sensual pleasure of words, medical language, poetry. “It’s just like a graduate seminar,” she announces dryly. “Once I did the teaching; now I am taught.” She is literally learning how to suffer and die.

Again, the dramatist doesn’t build anything remotely sentimental between Vivian and the doctor (Alec Phoenix, who’s excellent). A lesser dramatist might have been tempted. Wit , the tear-jerker? Hardly. Yet we will be moved enough, and even shattered, in time.

It is the dawning of Vivian’s own emotional needs that move us so in their dignity and humor. And mortal things touch all hearts. “I can’t believe my life has become so corny !” she protests, sucking on a popsicle like a contented child. She does not come shining through . She learns of kindness and simple things, like the tender embrace of a nurse who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “soporific,” or the comfort of a morphine-induced dream of a bedtime story from childhood.

The ferocious penultimate scene is a fight for life, the afterlife. The nurse (Paula Pizzi, who’s another super actor in the cast) defends Vivian’s wish to die against the doctor’s compulsive efforts to keep her half-alive for research. “And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die,” goes the Donne sonnet. So the struggle is over Vivian’s soul, a state of grace, dignified and painless, life everlasting.

Wit isn’t just impeccably performed by Ms. Chalfant and the entire ensemble, the production is a model of excellence in every department. The director is Derek Anson Jones, a talent-new to me-to watch.

And the dramatist Margaret Edson? We know only that she was born in Washington, D.C., in 1961. She has degrees in history and literature, and worked on the cancer inpatient unit of a research hospital. And that Wit is her first play. Some debut! I’m glad she prefers anonymity to celebrity. We’ve got quite enough celebrities . But not enough dramatists of Ms. Edson’s gifted intelligence. Wit is the best new play I’ve seen for many a season. The Amazing Grace of Margaret Edson’s Wit