For script, for acting, for staging–for everything, really–PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Wit is the best show so far this season. If live theater has any hold over you at all, you’ve got to see it.

I’ve placed that injunction at the top of this review because Margaret Edson’s play, although it won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is not, to put it mildly, a work with obvious crowd appeal. To begin with, it’s about ovarian cancer–fatal ovarian cancer. When we first meet the heroine, Dr. Vivian Bearing (played by Tandy Cronin), she’s bald, barefoot, dressed in a nightgown and a baseball cap, hooked to a portable IV stand–and, as she explains in her first speech, about two hours away from death. Dr. Bearing, you should be aware, is not an M.D., but a Ph.D. Her specialty is 17th-century English literature, and the parts of the play that aren’t about cancer are mostly about the poetry of John Donne.

Actually, that’s not quite right, since the parts of the play that are about cancer are about Donne’s poetry, too, and vice versa. “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful,” Donne wrote in his most famous sonnet, and his lines pulse through Wit like a heartbeat. After spending most of her life defining herself through scholarship, Dr. Bearing suddenly finds herself being defined by her disease. Her increasing fear and dependence lead her from the ironies, paradoxes and wit of Donne’s metaphysics toward an acceptance of human frailty and her own demise.

Handled poorly, Dr. Bearing’s journey could easily slip into facile moralizing: cleverness, bad; sentiment, good. But Wit never slights the sheer joy of complex thoughts and intellectual rigor. The play is shot through with a love of words and wordplay (as is Narelle Sissons’ wide-open set, with its sky-revealing wall of windows at the back and excerpts from Donne’s poetry painted on the floor). When Dr. Bearing says, near the end, that “now is the time for simplicity; now is the time for kindness,” it makes a moving contrast to her earlier sharpness. But it also carries the implication that there are other times that demand other, equally worthy qualities.

Tandy Cronin, making her fifth appearance with the PRC, is a wonder to behold as Dr. Bearing, whether sparring with her doctors, relishing the language of Donne or angrily–and finally wearily–slipping toward death. It’s a raw, risk-taking, unforgettable performance. Ray Dooley, Kathryn Hunter Williams and Jeffrey Blair Cornell are respectively brisk, brusque and maternal as a trio of hospital personnel, and Betty Low provides an incisive not-quite-caricature of professorial hauteur. Director Drew Blair also draws precise, funny work from a supporting ensemble of bustling orderlies and nodding students.

True to its title, Wit is witty; and despite its subject matter, it’s not a disease-of-the-week downer. The final moments, in fact, have a transcendent, beyond-tears serenity that evokes Greek tragedy. Ultimately, the only depressing thing about Wit is how poorly done and inconsequential so many other shows look beside it.

I haven’t read William Wharton’s 1978 novel Birdy, but I have just seen Naomi Wallace’s dramatization, which is scheduled to go to New York after its current run in Duke’s Theater Previews series. And having seen it, I still don’t know what Wallace saw in the novel that made her think it would work as a play.

Perhaps it was the theme. Wallace–the recipient of a MacArthur Grant–dealt with the way war and rigid codes of masculinity warp young men in her first major play, In the Heart of America. The central characters in Birdy have gone through similarly hellish experiences. One, Al Columbato, who was beaten by his father as a boy and disfigured in World War II, is so filled with rage that he’s little more than a walking fist. His sensitive, pigeon-raising friend, known as Birdy, came out of the same war as a literal bird-man: mute, perching and caged in an Army mental hospital in Kentucky. Can these damaged souls heal themselves and each other?

Yeah, they can. But almost all of that healing takes place internally–the adult Birdy, in fact, doesn’t even speak until the last scene. (Al and Birdy are played by different actors in the post-WWII “present” and in their adolescent past.) Despite some funny and affecting scenes, Birdy consists mostly of beautiful stage pictures (artfully mounted by director Kevin Knight) and a lot of talk about its own meaning.

Bryant Richards and Grant Show are particularly strong (and very similar physically) as the younger and older Al. Michael Pitt as the younger Birdy and Wallace Acton as the older version do good work individually, though they never convinced me that the character was more than a symbolism-burdened literary conceit. The highlight of the show by far is the rotating, sloping circular set designed by director Knight, a physical embodiment of air, clouds and vertigo. EndBlock