She arrives on automatic pilot, honking an unnaturally cheery “Hi, how ya feelin’ today?” at the audience. It’s the only false, unfelt line in a deeply illuminating play, and it parodies a doctor making rounds, asking the one question he doesn’t want to know the answer to.
When first we meet Prof. Vivian Bearing, she is wigless but not witless -- never witless -- in Margaret Edson’s brilliant Wit at the Union Square Theatre. She is sporting the latest in shapeless hospital schmattas, a scarlet baseball cap that hides her baldness and the absolute max in sardonic humor to see her through the humiliation of a patient undergoing an aggressive experimental regime of chemotherapy for fourth-stage ovarian cancer.
Before this leveled her, Bearing was impervious behind her hallowed halls of ivy, perfectly content to be self-contained, 50-year-old college teacher esoteric enough to find funny things in the “Holy Sonnets” of John Donne. (The 17th-century metaphysical poet the rest of us know for writing “Death be not proud” and “Ask not for whom the bell tolls,”). And now all that learning is lost on the situation at hand. This crisis has, much against her will, reduced her from a place of imperious isolation to one of helpless dependency. She is cared for by a monosyllabic nurse who misses all of her jokes, and her cervical exam (which she tries to blot out by reciting Donne) is conducted by an above-average former student. Eventually, all the walls come down. In the homestretch, solace comes not from the scholarly pursuits that filled her life but from a children’s tale, “The Runaway Bunny.”
What would seem on the surface to be an unremittingly grim descent is transformed into a triumphant celebration of the human spirit by Edson’s writing, the direction of Derek Anson Jones and a heart-wrenchingly intense portrayal of the vulnerable but invincible Vivian by Kathleen Chalfant, a seasoned theatrical veteran in the performance of her life. Chalfant’s astonishingly authentic portrait -- the humanity and heartbreak she invests in the role -- comes from a real place: For as long as she has been working on this play, she has been dealing with a death in the family -- that of her cancer-stricken brother, Alan Palmer, a San Francisco fund raiser who spent his last two years in the town house she and her husband, documentary filmmaker Henry Chalfant, have in Greenwich Village. He died last Good Friday -- between her first run of Wit at the Long Wharf in New Haven and its move to New York’s Manhattan Class Company -- and she was with him at the end in the hospital when he collapsed lifelessly into bed, in much the same manner Vivian now does onstage.
His passing informed her performance in countless other ways. “This play is my memorial to Alan, a place I can put my grief,” she admits softly. “My brother had been so much a part of my professional life, always. He was 14 years older, so he was sort of my third parent -- the one who encouraged my work. He was my glamorous brother, the first person to bring people from theatre and dance into our home because he had a passion for it. “When I first got the script of Wit, I gave it to him to read. He said two things. One, that it was true to his experience. And, two, ‘If anyone asks you to do this play, you do it.’ He saw me do it twice at Long Wharf. It was almost the last thing he saw. I’m only sorry he’s not here to see the snazzy part, but I suspect he knows, and I think he likes it a lot.” Chalfant is self-effacing enough to suggest this role of a lifetime fell into her lap because she was standing under the right tree up in Central Park: “I was doing Henry V in the park, and Doug Hughes was the director. Derek was the assistant director, and he gave the play to me and Doug at the same time. The amazing thing about this play is that it was written seven years ago. It won the Drama League Award and was sent all around the country. No one would do it. Finally, South Coast Rep did it in 1995, and it won all kinds of L.A. prizes. Then it was sent all over the country again, and again no one would do it.” That the play ever saw light on this coast is, Chalfant feels, a tribute to the tenacity of Derek Anson Jones. He and author Edson had been high school classmates together, and he told her there was a play in the observations she was making doing low-level jobs at a hospital oncology ward. Six months after Henry V, Hughes became artistic director of the Long Wharf and tapped Jones to direct a new play by an unknown writer -- to wit, Wit. Most people believe Chalfant, 53, emerged on Broadway full-blown (and full-bearded) as the ancient rabbi of Angels in America. This uncannily on-target performance, and others in that opus, won her a Tony nomination and, more significantly, steady employment ever since. But, in truth, by then she’d been in New York theatre two decades. She co-founded Playwrights Horizons with Robert Moss and The Women’s Project with Julia Miles and is now or has been on the board of directors of New York Theatre Workshop, Classic Stage Company and the Vineyard. She went regional once her two children had grown up enough. (David, 30, now plays bass in a Boston-based folk fusion band called The Nields, and Andromache, 26, is a painter listing of late toward theatre design).
In 1975, Chalfant made her Broadway debut in Dance With Me, which was a musical (and a neat trick since she didn’t sing or dance). Aside from both sets of Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), which she worked on from 1988 to 1994, her only other Broadway credit is Racing Demon. The rest of her art has been dispensed Off-Broadway -- Endgame, Nine Armenians, Phaedra in Delirium, Just Say No, Three Poets, Twelve Dreams, Iphigenia and Other Daughters. And now fame and acclaim. “I like having it now,” she smiles. “This is totally a surprise. I thought Angels was my moment in the sun. I always think it’s sad to have your great moment early -- then it goes away, and it’s hard. It’s wonderful to have it now when you think it will go on. Now, I’m happier in my life and family and career than I’ve ever been.”