She'd just won the Pulitzer Prize, but playwright Margaret Edson was contentedly back in her elementary school classroom, buzzing around, bee-style, with her students, using all of the congratulatory flowers she'd humbly received as props in a lesson she was teaching about pollination. Appearing on Charlie Rose's PBS interview program a few months ago, Edson was almost serenely unimpressed with herself, listening oddly, smiling sporadically, and speaking only when spoken to. Rose, fascinated and as inquisitive as ever, couldn't seem to get enough out of her to please himself about why and how a person would create such an exquisite, successful play, only to quietly return to teaching. Edson calmly explained that she was simply interested in the subject of grace and wanted to explore how it could be achieved. She had something to say and she had said it. Her work was done; she loved teaching. The play's the thing.
If Wit, the beautiful play that won her the Pulitzer, does in fact remain the only show Margaret Edson ever writes, it's just one more reason to pay it due attention when the Seattle Repertory Theatre produces it this October. No one should require the extra incentive, though, because Edson's piece, with or without the promise of more to come, is among the most moving works in recent memory.
Glowing and sometimes almost unbearably moving, with both a masking toughness and a fragile center that mirrors its main character, Wit is ostensibly a play about a woman's descent into the horrifying hole that cancer unrelentingly digs for a body. Dr. Vivian Bearing is a middle-aged, fairly intimidating John Donne scholar and professor who is diagnosed at the beginning of the show and spends the rest of the evening as our acerbic guide to her treatment ("I think I die at the end," she tells us). Vivian is displeased with the recent hand she's been dealt, mercilessly and hilariously zinging the medical establishment, hospital staff, former students, and anyone whom she deems beneath her. The personal journey that unfolds between that diagnosis and its inevitable conclusion, however, transforms the show into something above and beyond a play about a disease. Wit becomes a crushingly tender exploration of human folly and the defenses that cancer thins away along with the body.
The New York production I was lucky enough to attend featured an extraordinary performance by Kathleen Chalfant, but from the sounds of advance word, Seattle audiences will not be lacking a formidable lead with the Rep's company. Megan Cole, who originated the role of Vivian in Wit's premiere incarnation at South Coast Repertory, will be reprising the part under the guidance of that production's original director, Martin Benson. Considering that the New York version has recently been taken over by Judith "Who's the Boss?" Light and Grant "Melrose Place" Show, Seattle's production may be your best bet to fully experience the beauty of Edson's language, and wonder at how she's been able to maintain her humility in the face of such admirable accomplishment.