Dr. Posner becomes an especially vexing figure for Vivian because years ago he attended one of her Donne courses — but only to upholster his med-school application. Even when he tries to pay homage to Vivian’s class, he makes it sound like some quaint diversion, like a course in macramé or fruit-canning. One senses that Posner could — or should — be a more compelling figure, representing the soul that was unclaimed by Vivian’s class, and who has even inherited some of her intellectual obsessiveness. But Phoenix plays the doctor strictly for glib laughter; actor Charles’ portrayal of Dr. Kelekian, however, is more sympathetically shaded, even if he is as fanatical as Posner in his quest for knowledge. (It may or may not be intentional that Charles plays both the doctor whom Vivian tries most to please by being a lab rat, as well as her aloof father who, during one childhood flashback, would not read a storybook to Vivian.)
Posner isn’t Vivian’s only regret, as we return to her teaching days, when she’d aridly rebuke her clueless students only to overhear them mock her in the halls. Vivian meets her end realizing that there is a difference between scholarship and teaching, but it’s not an epiphany that blackens her final hours, and we don’t judge her for it — just as, mercifully, she isn’t implicitly held "liable" for never having married or given birth. For such a character to triumph, a strong performance is required, and Kathleen Chalfant more than rises to the challenge. Her portrayal of a hairless, no-brow highbrow woman who manages to go down with her pride intact is nothing less than stunning. Vivian’s body crumbles while her brilliant mind burns, until her doctors douse that intelligence with morphine — marking Chalfant’s performance as a kind of solo act set within an ensemble production.
Wit eschews sentimental hanky passing and gives us, near its end, a scene of quiet grandeur, when the retired Professor Ashford visits her former acolyte, now too sedated to even speak. The old teacher, who had once bequeathed Vivian both a rapturous appreciation for verse and an intellectual rigor that fenced out the emotional world, reads aloud a story from a child’s picture book. For a moment Ashford becomes a mother nursing her dying daughter, as well as that distant parent belatedly taking the time to read to Vivian. It is a moment conspicuously lacking in wit, but one filled with an unbearable poetry. WIT | By MARGARET EDSON | At the Geffen Playhouse | 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Through March 5