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Margaret Edson, Playwright, Sees Lessons In Teaching 'Wit'

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In this Jan. 6, 2012 photo, playwright Margaret Edson poses at Inman Middle School where she teaches social studies in Atlanta. Edson was cleaning up her kindergarten classroom at Centennial Place Elementary when she learned that she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her drama
In this Jan. 6, 2012 photo, playwright Margaret Edson poses at Inman Middle School where she teaches social studies in Atlanta. Edson was cleaning up her kindergarten classroom at Centennial Place Elementary when she learned that she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her drama "Wit."

ATLANTA -- Playwright Margaret Edson talks proudly about her Pulitzer Prize and her work appearing on Broadway, but she's the most animated when she discusses "Wit" being read in another place – the classroom.

The middle school social studies teacher happily rattles off a list of programs where her one – and only – play is studied, from high school literature classes to chaplaincy training to medical schools.

The story about a college professor dying of ovarian cancer in the oncology wing of a hospital has captivated audiences across the globe since it debuted in 1995 at South Coast Repertory theater in Costa Mesa, Calif.

It's been produced in Paris, Singapore, Mexico and Russia and brought Edson the kind of attention she never dreamed of while writing it as a 30-year-old in 1991. And it's studied in classrooms worldwide, something Edson – a veteran educator of 19 years – said still amazes her.

"When I wrote `Wit,' I had no thought of commercial success and no thought of it even being produced," Edson said sitting in her Inman Middle School classroom in Atlanta on a recent afternoon. "It was the one thing in my heart that I wanted to say."

The play, which premiered on Broadway last month at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, features "Sex and the City" star Cynthia Nixon as the wry, intellectual professor Vivian Bearing, an expert on 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne.

Based partly on Edson's experience as a clerk in a hospital oncology ward, the play was rejected at first by 60 theaters because of the tough subject matter. The character of Vivian is on stage for the entire 90-minute work, talking directly to the audience about her life – and her impending death.

"It's very destabilizing for the audience and I think theaters were nervous about that," the 50-year-old Edson said. "It easily could have missed and I'm aware of that every day."

The details of the play are based on her experiences in her hospital job – from the sterile technique the nurse uses to administer shots to Vivian's irritation that her wheelchair disappeared during a diagnostic test. Edson said she chose ovarian cancer because it's not as well researched as breast cancer and is typically not detected until it's at an advanced stage.

Edson also said that having ovarian cancer actually suits Vivian's character because it is "so complex and inscrutable." Said Edson: "It would not be her story if it were breast cancer."

Edson was in her kindergarten classroom at an Atlanta elementary school when she heard "Wit" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999. But Edson said she never considered quitting her job.

In fact, she said she's never penned another play – or any other form of professional writing. Instead, Edson has watched quietly as her one work gained traction in the theater world.

A filmed version starring Emma Thompson was broadcast on in 2001 by HBO. A troupe of Scottish actors sent her postcards from every tiny town where they performed "Wit."

Each time she sees a production, Edson said she believes she's had the "complete `Wit' experience," but then someone else calls wanting to put on the play. Last April, Broadway came calling in the form of the Manhattan Theatre Club, which is producing the Broadway premiere.

"If we find the cure tomorrow for ovarian cancer, this play will still have tremendous relevance," said the play's director, Lynne Meadow, artistic director at the theater club. "Her play deals with a lot more than what are we doing in cancer research. She's into research of the human soul."

Occasionally friends and neighbors who know she wrote "Wit" will want to talk about it, but Edson said she rarely hears about it from parents of her students. On a recent day, her neighbor, who is in medical school, told her he'd just studied her play in class.

Edson said she tries to see two productions of "Wit" each year, beaming about a recent performance at Bethel College, a Mennonite institution in Kansas. She said many teachers like the play because it helps students connect with Donne, who can be difficult to understand.

The Washington, D.C., native ended up in Atlanta after her partner got a job at a museum and moved the couple south. The two have since had two boys, ages 11 and 9, who draw most of her focus outside of her job.

The two boys, Pete and Tim, accompanied Edson and her partner to New York for the play's Broadway debut last week.

When asked how she's like the formidable Professor Bearing, Edson doesn't hesitate.

"I'm scornful and intolerant and drawn to extremely complicated things and contemptuous of people who are not worthy," she said. "I'm pompous. I'm a blow hard. Shall I go on?"

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