Some while back, I was introduced to the 2001 film Wit starring Emma Thompson. The movie was gripping and fascinating, so naturally I was excited last weekend to see the stage production starring Cynthia Nixon from Sex in the City.
In a strange way, I enjoyed the show partially in spite of the lead, not necessarily because of her.
The story itself requires description, if my review of the current production of Wit is to make any sense to readers who are unfamiliar with it.
The lead character is a brilliant, infamously tough university professor of 17th century English literature, known for being demanding and stern to her students. People choose to take her class because they’re almost certain to be challenged into an exquisite education, and because if they survive, they’ll be renowned for managing to make a good grade in her class.
Nearly every facet of her experience as a professor is shown to be exacting, authoritative, and almost grim. Warm and fuzzy, she is not.
So when this ice queen is diagnosed with a particularly deadly form of cancer, she finds herself challenged with enduring a very difficult experimental treatment. It has questionable hope of success, but a strong chance for researchers to learn more about combatting this specific cancer. Reasoning that it’s her only chance of survival, she agrees.
Most of the play revolves around her experience with the treatment, and specifically with the way her doctors and other medical personnel interact with her. It’s understandably galling for the teacher to become the subject of study, especially when she is treated by most as a patient number at best, and an annoyance or inconvenience at worst.
That’s really where this story (in film or stage format) is at its strongest, I think. You watch the professor gradually beaten down from her proud position, and showing a remarkable vulnerability as her struggle gets worse. And you find yourself appalled at the casual indifference of many of the hospital team.
Where I was less enamored, with the stage production, was in Ms. Nixon’s inconsistent performance. I didn’t find her especially believable in the first third (or frankly, half) of the show. You’re not necessarily supposed to LIKE her character, but you should at least find yourself truly believing the actress in the role. Frankly, I just didn’t. Fortunately, as the ice thaws and the professor becomes more vulnerable — and indeed, more human — I found myself much more drawn to the character.
Even worse, for me, was the way in which the protagonist breaks the fourth wall intermittently during the show. In some instances, she speaks to the audience as if narrating the play we’re watching, or perhaps just describing her life as if it was a play (though perhaps not explicitly this play.) Maybe it was my own intellectual shortcomings, or maybe I was at times distracted by the fact that it was Cynthia Nixon onstage — or that it wasn’t Emma Thompson — but either way, it just sometimes was difficult for me to distinguish. I don’t recall having that difficulty at all when watching the film.
Ultimately, though, despite my quibbles, it was a very good show. I may have nitpicky complaints, but that’s just because I find myself comparing my every reaction to how I responded when watching the movie. And of course, because I’m kind of a theatre snob, as longtime readers will attest.
Don’t let these things detract from my assurance that Wit is a strong show, guaranteed to evoke several emotional responses and leave your mind whirring after you exit the theatre. You’ll almost certainly walk away glad that you attended.