Photo courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Professor Vivian Bearing is a formidable presence. She is a rigorous academic -- a scholar of the intricate metaphysical works of 17th-century poet John Donne -- and a woman who prefers intellect to sentiment. She also has stage IV ovarian cancer, is undergoing a series of treatments for medical research, and is studied by physicians with a fervor she once reserved for arcane poetry.
She is the anti-heroine at the center of Margaret Edson’s first and only play, Wit, which earned Edson the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999. This season, the play is receiving its first-ever Broadway production, courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club, starring Cynthia Nixon.
“It’s a play about grace,” Edson says from the backseat of a Town Car. She’s being whisked from midtown Manhattan to the airport for her return flight to Atlanta, where she lives with her partner, Linda Merrill, and two children. “It’s about one person coming into her true self,” she continues. “Vivian’s spent her life hiding behind various edifices that she’s constructed to avoid coming into contact with her own humanity. The experience of illness forces her to think -- in a new way -- about what being human means.”
Edson is tall and lean with a pouf of short brown hair and is as warm and cheery as her theatrical construct is terse and caustic. She’s a paradox: A woman of unique talent who arrived fully-formed, it seemed, on the theater scene, went on to earn critical praise of the highest order for her inaugural work, yet feels no pressure to follow it up.
“I have always been clear that I wanted to keep teaching. I’m a teacher. This is my 19th year, and I’m staying in my classroom,” she says plainly. Mirroring Harper Lee, who won the 1961 Pulitzer for To Kill a Mockingbird before ostensibly retiring, Edson sees herself as the conduit for this one dazzling work.
“Like any big project that you’re completely unqualified for, it was frustrating, agonizing, challenging, and thrilling,” Edson says of the writing
process, which she began in 1991 when she was 30 years old and working at a bike repair shop. She immersed herself in oncology and Donne’s work as preparation. “I wanted the play to be very precise in the way that it speaks about both English literature and medicine,” she explains. Despite her newcomer status, the play was produced in 1995 by the South Coast Repertory and at the Long Wharf Theatre in 1997 before a successful Off-Broadway run.
“Its humanity and intelligence make for a powerful evening in the theater,” says Lynne Meadow, director of the Broadway production. “We’re not always in control of the circumstances around us, but we are in control of ourselves,” she says, touching on one of the play’s central themes.
In no way should Edson’s story be tossed off as a glamorous parable. Her success and the celebrity-driven Broadway debut are aberrations from her everyday life, where awards -- no matter how illustrious -- rarely come in handy.
Ultimately, Edson sees her position as an outsider as a benefit: “There was no reason to think this would even be produced,” she says, “so I wrote the play I wanted to write, and that was very freeing. If I had strategized with the goal of having it produced, I would have written a very different play. But when I was writing it, I felt free as a bird.”
Wit is playing through March 11 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in Manhattan.