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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"There are so many things I love about Vivian," the actress gushed sincerely. "I love her speeches. I love her talking to the audience. I love her sly humor. I love her determination not to be sentimental — until she embraces sentimentality with open arms because finally she embraces feeling. It is one thing to see someone who is emotionally connected already have an emotional experience, but to see someone who is emotionally detached finally come to their feelings — that's a big thing to see."
The density and intensity of the character's scholarly verbiage would be daunting to other actresses, but Nixon jumped into the words with gleeful abandon. "I did, I did, I just did. It didn't even take me that long to memorize, either." What was much harder, she allowed, was "finding the modulation of how her emotion finally cracks through — not having it happen too early, not having it happen too late, not having it be too big for too long — to really modulate it so it's just right."
Her calibration apparently jived with Edson's. "She seemed very pleased," Nixon said cautiously. "I really haven't gotten a chance to debrief with her, but she kept saying to me, 'You're so brave, you're so brave,' so I thought that was a good sign."
Nixon would qualify as Poster Child for Actress Bravery, if only for the show's logo in which she fearlessly, almost defiantly, displays a cancer patient's shaved head.
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Greg Keller, Broadway-debuting here as the professor's primary M.D. and her former A-minus student ("I wish I'd given him an A"), attested to the even-keeled rehearsal-process temperature. "We always made sure that we kept the rehearsal room light and fun — but serious when it needed to be serious," he relayed, "and Lynne was really great about understanding the demands of the show."
"Honestly, it was completely dreamy," seconded Jessica Dickey, one of the medical ensemble. "Cynthia, just from the start, was such an impeccable leader and gracious and smart and kind and so competent at her craft. All those rumors are true there. And Lynne has such a generous spirit and brought that into the room. Every day we began with this circle, and we worked on the play, and it really sorta embodied the spirit of the whole process, and it continues now even into the run."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Fresh from her Atlantic crossing was The Little Mermaid herself. "I just got off the plane from London, literally a couple of hours ago," said Sierra Boggess. "I was doing some press for Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Concert that I did at Albert Hall, which is on DVD now. It will be released here next month."
A contingent from Regrets, MTC's next offering at its City Center space, was among the first-nighters — Richard Topol, Tony winner Adriane Lenox and director Carolyn Cantor. "We start rehearsals in two weeks," said Topol. "I play a nebbish Queens pet-shop owner. It's going to give me a real stretch, isn't it? — but I think I might have a chance. I'm real excited, actually."
Tony Roberts was in good spirits, too. "I'm doing an audio book by Stuart Woods, the 17th one that I've done in the past 20 years. I play an ex-New York City Police detective by the name of Stone Barrington. I'm in the middle of recording it, and it's a great pleasure. The name of this one is 'Unnatural Acts.' Isn't that enticing?"
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Also present: Edward Hibbert, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, Margaret Colin, Max Baker, Donna Murphy and Shawn Elliott, Master Class' Alexandra Silber, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Maria Dizzia, Kieran Campion, lyricist Susan Birkenhead, producers Liz McCann and Jeffrey Richards, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, Arian Moayed, playwright Matthew Lopez, Charlotte d'Amboise, Good People's Renee Elise Goldsberry and that vision of black-laced loveliness, Kim Cattrall, from Nixon's old "Sex and the City" days.
View highlights from the show: