For Cynthia Nixon and Lynne Meadow, With Wit Comes Understanding

By Harry Haun
January 5, 2012

Cynthia Nixon and director Lynne Meadow, both cancer survivors, share the challenge and the music of Margaret Edson's Wit on Broadway.



*

Margaret Mitchell of "Gone With the Wind" fame is not the only Margaret from Atlanta to win the Pulitzer Prize for her one and only magnum opus. There is also Margaret Edson, who matched that distinction in 1999 with her play Wit, whetting the public's appetite for more. Mind you, there've been rumblings of a second unproduced play — just as there were rumors that Scarlett O'Hara would ride again during Mitchell's lifetime — but, to date, Edson seems to have settled into a comfortable groove of teaching social studies to sixth-graders.

There's much to be said for saying it all the first time and having nothing else to say on the subject, which is pretty much the case of Wit. The play is based on Edson's painful experiences working in a hospital oncology unit. For a gossamer overlay, she drew on her own love of literature — in particular, her deep-dish analysis of 17th-century poet John Donne, whose "Death Be Not Proud" is invoked at one point. All this is laid at the feet of her heroine, Dr. Vivian Bearing, a hard-driving, demanding, arrogantly academic English prof with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. The vulnerability of the invincible comes down, eventually, to a simple line of surrender: "I thought being smart enough would be enough."

Kathleen Chalfant's luminous work in the original production, informed by the final illness of her brother, won every major acting award of the season, save one — the Tony — and that was because it was ineligible, having never been on Broadway. Well, this trivial hitch has finally been fixed, 14 years after the fact, by Manhattan Theatre Club's artistic director, Lynne Meadow. She has booked Wit for a limited engagement at MTC's Broadway base, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, and directs the revival starring Cynthia Nixon, who, in her last brush with MTC (Rabbit Hole), won the Tony.

Kathleen Chalfant in the original Off-Broadway production.
photo by Joan Marcus

You might assume, since both Nixon and Meadow are breast-cancer survivors, that this had something to do with the selection. "Not really," they shoot back in unison.

Nixon runs with the ball first: "I don't think so. It's just a wonderful play. Yes, it helps not only that we've had cancer but that many people around us have too, survived it or haven't. I think it's so much something that's happening now. But I think that, if it were about some disease she had just made up, it still would be a great play.

"I remember so many moments from it, how amazing Kathleen was. I went very early — it hadn't even opened yet, and I didn't know very much about it — but my mother said, 'I hear there's this play we have to see.' And we were devastated."

Nixon was Meadow's first and only choice for the part. "She's such a great actress and so smart, when I asked her to do it, she said — so thoughtfully — 'That's a really good idea.'"

Nixon's second thought was she might be too young for it. "Then I thought, 'I don't care — to do that part is great.' The character is 50. I'm 45. We split the difference. We made her 48. She should be of a certain age to have achieved real success and stature in her career. Other than that, I don't think her age matters."

Cynthia Nixon
The author agrees, Meadow relays. "When I said to Maggie that Cynthia wants to do this play, she was just over the moon. She didn't think she was too anything but wonderful. I've this fantasy that when she meets Cynthia, she'll write a play for her."

Nixon's age did play a factor in something else. The actress turned 40, Tony winner and cancer survivor all in the same year. "It was," she remembers, "a totally routine examination. What the guy who read the film said was, 'You know, it's so small. I really wouldn't have thought anything of it, but it wasn't on the previous year's mammogram.' I started getting mammograms at 35 because my mother had breast cancer twice. I'm so lucky I didn't start at 40. They wouldn't have noticed it for another year, and who knows how much more advanced it would have been?"

Meadow seconded that: "If that's not an argument for mammograms, I don't know what is. I didn't find mine on a mammogram. I found mine myself. I, too, was lucky.

"After I had finished chemotherapy, I did read Wit. It was very intense to read after that. I wasn't staging it in my head as much as hearing the music of it. Like any great play, the answers are within the text, and the joy of working on this is finding them. We've all done plays where there are potholes, and you have to fill in what's not there. This seems to be a woman being diagnosed with cancer, but it's actually about a person facing a challenge — like losing a job. It's not necessarily a life/death situation. What Maggie taps into that's profound and far-reaching is it's about facing a challenge and what you do in the face of a crisis. That's one reason that we want to do it on a larger canvas, on Broadway: so more people can see it."