In Broadway's 'Wit,' A Documentary Of Our Demise

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In her dressing room at the Friedman Theatre, Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon has a nightly ritual: She rubs Nivea cream all over her scalp to soothe the razor burns.

Being completely bald is just one of the many demands of the character she plays in Wit -- a brilliant college professor named Vivian Bearing, who's battling ovarian cancer.

"She talks so much; she's verbose," Nixon says. "She talks in such an erudite and complicated way. She's bald, she's naked, and she's dying in a slow, excruciating way. There's a lot! There's a lot of virtuosic elements of the play."

Not least of which is that, for much of the play, Vivian speaks directly to the audience — a device that's established at the outset, when she walks onstage in a hospital gown and a red baseball cap, pushing a portable IV drip.

For the next 90 minutes or so, Bearing bares herself in this unflinchingly honest and, yes, very witty play.

"But you have to watch out for Professor Bearing," says Wit's playwright, Margaret Edson. "Hold on to your wallet while you're with her, because she is an unreliable narrator."

Edson wrote Wit when she was 30, based partly on her experiences working at a research hospital. It's her first and only play, and, in fact, in it she is frequently attacked by her own character.

"She feels that she's in charge of the play, and she's presenting this documentary of her demise. And, in fact, the play is slipping out of her control," Edson says. "She and I are in a struggle for narrative control of the play, and she thinks I'm a terrible writer; she criticizes me all through the play. But it's my play, OK? And so I don't want her to die without coming into some understanding of herself, into some experience of grace."

"You cannot imagine how time can be so still," Vivian says as she lies in her hospital bed. "It hangs, it weighs, and yet there is so little of it. It goes so slowly and yet is so scarce. If I were writing this scene, it would last a full 15 minutes. I would lie here and you would sit there."

"Not to worry," she adds, after a pause. "Brevity is the soul of wit."

Nixon says part of what makes Vivian's story so compelling is the way Edson has leavened it with humor.

"Even in the worst times for Vivian, even when terrible, terrible things are happening, somehow Margaret has just put those laughs in there," Nixon says. "I think the audience just gives full voice to [the laughs], and they really need them! And it doesn't diminish, in any way, the pathos of what's happening, but it just — I don't know — it helps."

In one such instance, Vivian's nurse Susie prepares a morphine drip, to dull the pain. When Vivian asks if the drug will have a soporific effect, Susie sweetly responds that she doesn't know about that — "but it sure does make you sleepy!"

Nixon says that, in the end, Vivian is a teacher.

"I think 'What is knowledge for?' is a question that really concerns Margaret and concerns the play," Nixon says.

Teaching has been Edson's vocation for well over a decade now. She found out she won the Pulitzer Prize for Wit while she was teaching kindergarten. She now teaches social studies to sixth-graders, even as her show has been previewing on Broadway.

"Teaching is me, teaching is alive," Edson says. "I'm on my feet all day; I'm with my people all day. I'm not separate from anyone, and I'm in the mix. I'm out there doing my job, every day."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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