Photo by Dixie Sheridan

It can’t be an easy thing to die onstage these days. Characters do drop dead on the boards all the time, of course, but after the nightly vaudeville of mayhem that is the 6 o’clock news, we the audience require some pretty strong theatrics to really care that they are drifting into the big sleep. Which is what makes Margaret Edson’s first play such a happy discovery. The Pulitzer-winning Wit, now at the Geffen Playhouse, is neither dark nor allegorical, shocking nor overpowering, but quietly wins our sympathies through a combination of erudite humor and disarming candor.

The story involves the diagnosis of and treatment for ovarian cancer of a renowned academic specializing in the sonnets of 17th-century poet John Donne, the 50-year-old Vivian Bearing (Kathleen Chalfant), who spends the entire evening wearing a hospital dressing gown and the kind of red baseball cap that we instinctively think of as a chemo cap. Vivian will break character throughout the evening to comment on the action, and we never have any doubts as to Wit’s outcome; “I think I die at the end,” she sighs in what amounts to the prologue to this 90-minute show. With that question answered, we’re taken back to when the professor is first told the bad news. Vivian and we know that only death lies at the end of the radical, experimental treatment that Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Walter Charles) proposes to supervise; from that moment onward, Vivian’s world is confined to a tight rectangle of hospital tiles, made banal by its familiarity and frightening by its inevitability.

Like many intellectually vain people, Vivian tries to impress the various interns and lab techs who attend her. Despite her game ability to adapt to the hospital regimen and to absorb its clinical nomenclature, she is frustrated that none of these impatient clipboard slingers gives a damn, or can remember her name. In session after session she endures her doctors’ hollow greeting, “How are you feeling today?,” eventually regarding it as a jab in the ribs. Worse is their faint condescension toward her assertion of being like them, a doctor — as though her Ph.D. in English literature were a chiropractor’s shingle.

In the face of such indifference, Vivian finds solace and challenge in Donne, and particularly in his “Holy Sonnets” and their probing of human mortality. Perhaps, too, she identifies with Donne on another level, that of the forgotten explorer — just as Vivian ceases to be a person in the eyes of her research tormentors, so did Donne vanish from popular taste with his death in 1631. (How many of us mistakenly ascribe “Death be not proud,” “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls” and “No man is an island” to Shakespeare or Milton?) At the heart of her rediscovery of Donne is the equating of his role as a detached wit (in the Restoration sense of the word, and not in today’s manner of media pundit) and Vivian’s own cerebral distance from people.

A flashback shows Vivian as a grad student being chewed out by her tweed-coated mandarin of a mentor, Professor E.M. Ashford (a delightfully starchy Anne Pitoniak), for using an inferior edition of Donne’s verse, with a particularly revealing explication on the distinction between the use of a comma and a semicolon to separate the notions of life and death. Far from being an esoteric discourse, this moment reveals to her a poetic truth that will one day fortify Vivian with self-assurance in the face of a brutal therapy and death itself.

The cancer ward is Vivian’s sanctuary and prison. In the hands of a less capable writer, this condition could have unleashed runaway metaphors for the sameness and confinement of life. But with Edson and Wit’s director, the late Derek Anson Jones, what you see is what you get — and what we see turns out to be pretty good. The continual jerking of sheer white curtains on Myung Hee Cho’s set, combined with David Van Tieghem’s percussive sound design and music score, transform Vivian’s antiseptic hospital into a latter-day temple of science — and, perhaps, suggest how much contemporary science has also become a form of theater.

Edson once worked in a cancer-research unit, and we assume much of Wit comes from her experiences. Mercifully, her play does not intimidate us with the thunder of her technical expertise; instead, we are invited to confront the jargon and procedures of Vivian’s treatment with the same bewilderment as the patient. Likewise, her obvious facility with Donne never sails over our heads, and proves that studying metaphysics in college can pay off down the road — in the theater, of all places.

There is, however, one moment when the mechanics of hospital intervention clumsily intrude, and it is also the production’s one misfired scene — when, at play’s end, Vivian flat lines and the stage becomes a veritable Guernica of shouting technicians and defibrillating gear. Too, Wit’s hospital staff, with the exception of Nurse Susie Monahan (Paula Pizzi), are not even stereotypes, but stick figures on which the playwright hangs her contempt for institutional science. Still, the one thing stick figures can provide is laughs, and there are plenty here, thanks especially to Dr. Kelekian’s lieutenant, Dr. Jason Posner (Alec Phoenix). The young doc is on a pure-research track and continually laments what he sees as unnecessary procedures to ensure the patients’ comfort and dignity — what one of David Hare’s Thatcherite villains dismissed as “all that human stuff.”

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

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.

LA Weekly