Yes, it's a part written for a tour-de-force, and other actresses have done it justice as they move us through the rounds of medical fellowship sessions, high-test chemo treatments, little successes and general indiscretions the character endures, interspersed with assessments of a stellar academic career as one of the world's great researchers on the poet John Donne. For Nixon's part, she doesn't perform as much as live the character; you get the feeling they've imported her from a real hospital ward, where she has walked and lived the talk.
Wit is, of course, scary - when is cancer not? But it's also funny - very funny - which is part of its triumph; we understand the pain and the process so much more clearly through the main character's witty vision. Nixon delivers those insights, in a play the character has constructed about her life with cancer, with a shaved head and no eyebrows - her character is on the highest dose of chemo possible. Emma Thompson shaved her scalp for Mike Nichols' tele-play of Wit on HBO (2001), as do actresses in regional theater. Nixon's normally expressive face is even more so, with a baseball cap perched on her high forehead.
Edson, the playwright, traded scripts for teaching, and now writes lesson plans for sixth-graders in her social studies classes in an Atlanta middle school. She could not have been given a more effective Broadway debut, with a supporting cast to complement her - the excellent Suzanne Bertish as her academic mentor, plus Greg Keller, Carra Patterson and Michael Countryman among others as part of the medical staff.
The Manhattan Theatre Club's artistic director, Lynne Meadow, has staged Wit with a kinetic flair and assembled a creative team - including Santo Loquasto, with his stark but handsome set of white columns and furniture - with the perfect feel for a play, in a production with the perfect leading player.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
Wit: At the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.