ATLANTA, Nov. 9 -- The lunch menu at Centennial
Place Elementary School on Thursday included square slices of cheesy pizza, a lettuce-only
salad, syrupy fruit cocktail and corn. And so it was not entirely unexpected when corn
kernels began to fly shortly after the two dozen members of Margaret Edson's kindergarten
class took their seats at a long cafeteria table. Some of the projectiles were lobbed by
hand by kindergartners at a neighboring table. Others were fired with slingshot force of a
"This is my world," Edson explained, surveying her troops.
Actually, it is only part of her world, although she is determined to prevent the two
halves from commingling. Seven years ago, while working as a sales clerk at a Washington
bicycle shop, Edson wrote a first play called "Wit," about the agonizing death
and journey to grace of a cancer-stricken professor of 17th-century English poetry. In
September, after performances in Costa Mesa, Calif., and New Haven, the play moved to the
99-seat MCC Theater in Manhattan and quickly became one of the most critically acclaimed
works of the season.
The New York production has been commended for the unsparing portrayal of Prof. Vivian
Bearing by Kathleen Chalfant and for the attentive direction of Derek Anson Jones, a high
school classmate of Edson's. But much of the highest praise has been reserved for the
rookie playwright, who was described in a review in The New York Times as "a lover of
mind-expanding irony" who is capable of finding "poetry in the reading of a
sonogram and science in the deconstruction of a sonnet."
Edson, 37, is tickled by the success of "Wit," but her teaching duties at a
new urban school have allowed little time for self-congratulation. She likes it that way.
Few of her fellow teachers know about the play. She told only her principal because she
had to explain that she needed to miss school one day so she could go see a performance.
"I just don't need to bring it up," she said in an interview in her brightly
decorated classroom after her pupils had left for the day. "I mean, I'm doing what
I'm doing. I'm engrossed in it. I'm very excited in my heart about the play, but it's not
relevant to going through the day."
The paradoxes are transparent, of course. A heralded playwright whose work explores the
revelations hidden within John Donne's Holy Sonnets spends her 10-hour days instructing
5-year-olds in simple phonics. Sure, she said, it is gratifying to know that sophisticated
audiences and critics understand the point of her work, but no more than it is to know
that her students are beginning to associate sounds with their letters.
"One guy today, I said something about a marker and he said, 'A marker starts with
mmm, mmm,' which means he's so close, he's going to get it tomorrow," she said
Edson, as tall and lanky as a high-jumper, seems to feel that she is just as likely to
change the world from within the walls of her classroom as she is within the confines of
the theater. "The more people learn to read and the more different kinds of people
learn to read, that's going to help the world get fixed," she asserted. "It's so
corny, but if there's a world that I want to see that has more justice in it, teaching is
the way for me to bring that about."
Edson, whose theatrical experience was limited to high school acting, is a relative
newcomer to teaching, and to Atlanta. She moved here three months ago because her partner,
Linda Merrill, was hired recently as a curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. She
taught first grade last year in Washington, where she has lived most of her life, and
taught English-as-a-second-language as a church volunteer for several years before that.
She has written a second play, "Satisfied," about country-gospel radio in
Kentucky, but it has not been produced.
"Wit" was written after Edson worked in two low-level jobs -- first as a
physical therapy aide, then in a desk job as a unit clerk -- at a hospital much like the
one where the professor spends her final days.
"As a unit clerk, you got to see a lot happen, and there wasn't so much you could
do about it," she said. "A nurse is only really able to see the patients. She's
not able to see herself responding to them. And the patients could see the nurses coming
to them, but they couldn't see themselves. Because I had no skills, I could see the whole
exchange. And so being useless is really the key here to any kind of insight."
As she watched patients battle with cancer and AIDS, Edson became intrigued by the
notion of writing about someone who moves from a position of power to one of dependency.
She considered other protagonists -- a senator, a judge, a minister -- but settled on a
scholar of Donne after remembering that classmates at Smith College had told her that
"Donne was the hardest."
She knew virtually nothing about his poetry, and spent hours studying in the library.
The easiest theatrical device, she said, would have been for the dying professor to find
succor in the flow of the sonnets ("And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt
die"). Instead, Professor Bearing, in her final moments, seems to take as much
comfort from a children's story, "The Runaway Bunny," as from the subject of her
Edson said she was a bit surprised that audiences seem to connect so viscerally with
her work, which she said is really about "the human touch." But as a teacher,
she is gratified that her message can be understood in New York while she remains 750