God created substitute teachers so Margaret Edson could, with a relatively clear conscience and the blessing of her principal at Inman Middle School in Atlanta, personally witness the belated Broadway bow of her 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit, Jan. 25 at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
"We're over-the-moon that you made the journey to be with us tonight," MTC executive producer Barry Grove declared, welcoming her at the top of the evening. He called his company "a home for writers" and pointed out to her a few cases in point around the room — like, say, David Ives, whose Venus in Fur was last at the Friedman (and will resume performances "at the Lyceum in just two weeks"), and Proof Pulitzer Prize-winner David Auburn, whose The Columnist will follow Wit "on this very stage in April."
But enough commercials. "Maggie, tonight is your night," he said. "Stand up and take a bow." With that, a long-stemmed, prim woman rose in the middle of the house to thunderous applause from the first-nighters. A second wave of it came at the curtain call when Cynthia Nixon threw her an appreciative kiss from the stage.
All in all, there would much to relay to her sixth graders when she returns to work first thing Monday morning. Unlike most people making their Broadway debuts, Edson remained resolutely grounded as she made the rounds of print and television interviews that followed the play at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill after-party.
Civilian concerns seemed to keep her head on straight, unturned by the hoopla coming at her from all sides. The press found it hard to fathom that she hadn't followed this terrific play up with more of the same — and, furthermore, wouldn't.
"I really wanted to write this play," she said. "I wrote it 20 years ago when I was 30, and, when I wrote it, I was free. I wasn't expecting it to be performed, and I wasn't writing a play to please producers. I just wrote the play that I wanted to write. That, now, Lynne Meadow has chosen to put it on Broadway is very meaningful to me. This is a wonderful production, and I'm very proud to see my work at MTC."
Wit chronicles the crumbling of a towering academician — Dr. Vivian Bearing, a college prof and arrogant specialist in 17th century metaphysical poetry (particularly the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, he of "Death Be Not Proud" fame).
Diagnosed with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer, she learns as her life slowly ebbs away that being smart is not enough to see her through this final ordeal. On her deathbed, she's done with Donne, she tells her ancient mentor (Suzanne Bertish), who consoles her instead with a sentimental children's fable, "The Runaway Bunny."
Because Edson writes with authority and authenticity, one might suspect her play is personally based. "Professor Bearing is very much like me," she conceded. The big difference, she added, is that "I'm on to myself." Bunny and Donne are served in equal measures to her sixth graders. "I don't belong in either world. I did research on cancer treatment, and then, for the play, I did research on John Donne. Then, I combined them in my own way. I'm an outsider to both those worlds, actually."
As a one-shot (possibly an only-shot) goes, Wit feels like a miracle to Edson "every day, every production. I never thought it would be produced. The script is studied in English classes, in medical schools and in chaplaincy-training programs. It is performed all over the world. Colleges perform it. The most recent production I saw was at a Mennonite College in Kansas. I went right from that one to this one."
None other than director Mike Nichols, who made an Emmy-winning TV movie of Wit with Emma Thompson, tried in vain to talk some more plays out of Edson — albeit, her "no" is more along the order of "not anytime soon."
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