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The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition
November 12, 1998

Leisure & Arts

In Kindergarten
With Author of 'Wit'



Maggie Edson -- the celebrated playwright who is so far off-Broadway, she's below the Mason-Dixon line -- is performing a daily ritual known as Wiggle Down.

"Tapping my toe, just tapping my toe" she sings, to the tune of "Singin' in the Rain," before a crowd of kindergarteners at Centennial Place, a downtown elementary school here. "What a glorious feeling, I'm -- nodding my head!" The kids gleefully tap their toes and nod themselves silly as they sing along.

"Give yourselves a standing O!" Ms. Edson cries, when the song ends. Her charges scramble to their feet and clap their hands, sending their arms arcing overhead in a giant "O."

This willowy 37-year-old woman with tousled brown hair and a big grin couldn't seem more different from Dr. Vivian Bearing, the brilliant, emotionally remote English professor who is the heroine of her play "Wit" -- which has won such unanimous critical acclaim in its small off-Broadway production that plans are brewing right now to move it to Broadway.

Vivian (beautifully played by Kathleen Chalfant) is a 50-year-old scholar who has devoted her life to the study of John Donne's "Holy Sonnets." When we meet her, she is dying of ovarian cancer. Bald from chemotherapy, she makes her entrance clad in a hospital gown, dragging an IV pole. "It is not my intention to give away the plot," Vivian tells the audience, "but I think I die at the end."

In this fierce, funny and unforgettable play, the uncompromising scholar becomes herself an object of study, as her doctors put her through a grueling course of experimental treatments. In scenes in the hospital and flashbacks to her past, we watch wry, caustic Vivian struggle with her ultimate lesson: how to face her own death. "I know all about life and death," she tells us. "I am, after all, a scholar of Donne's 'Holy Sonnets,' which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language." It is one of "Wit's" triumphs that Vivian makes us see exactly what she means. Caught in this play's powerful searchlight, poems such as "Death be not proud" spring to life -- with the very placement of a comma crystallizing mysteries of life and death for Vivian and her audience. For this feat, one critic demanded that Ms. Edson be handed the Harvard English department.

But she'd never take it. Kindergarten is where the action is.

"Learning to read -- that's the biggest thing you learn in your whole life," she says over dinner after a long day of teaching and lesson-planning. "Alphabet letters represent sound, text maps speech -- once you learn that, that's the hardest thing. It's the thing that opens your mind the most, that gives you the most power."

Ms. Edson -- Miss Edson, to her students -- grew up in Washington, D.C., and studied history at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. After graduation, she worked in an Iowa bar pouring drinks for hog farmers, then spent a year living in a Dominican convent in Rome. Back home in Washington, she got a job in the oncology/AIDS unit of a research hospital in 1985. "I was a unit clerk, which is a very low level job -- scheduling appointments, keeping supplies going," she says. "Because it was very low level, I got to see everything."

She left after a year, but the experience haunted her. So in January 1991, Ms. Edson quit her job at a mental health organization to write a play inspired by her time in the cancer unit. Why? "Because I wanted to go see it," she says simply, "and I thought someone has to write it."

She had less than a year. The following fall, Ms. Edson was to begin a master's degree in literature at Georgetown University -- the kick-off, presumably, to an academic career. As she began work on her play, she started thinking that maybe her heroine would be an academic, too. "I wanted to write about someone who would lose their power. I saw that in the hospital. You build up a certain set of tools. What happens to you if those tools don't serve you anymore?"

Ms. Edson decided to make Vivian a specialist in the poems of John Donne, for the simple reason that she'd always heard that they were the most demanding in English literature. Not that she had read any of them: Her own formal studies of poetry were limited to one college course -- "a very good class, but I don't think I read any John Donne." So she hit the library. "If you know how to study something, you can study anything," she explains.

But her first reading of Donne baffled her. "The harder I worked, I didn't get an answer," she says. "Some of these poems are too complicated. What's the point if they don't flow as poems?" She began "a pretty comprehensive study," which eventually led her to an understanding that "Donne is being suspicious of simplicity" -- much like Vivian herself.

At the same time, she delved into medical texts on cancer, both at the public library and at the National Library of Medicine. The more she read, the more she was struck by the unlikely correspondences between poetry and medicine -- correspondences that are used to great effect in "Wit." "When you really study a poem, you anatomize it," Ms. Edson says. "You can't make that up."

Ms. Edson finished "Wit" on schedule and sent it out to two theaters -- both of which promptly rejected it. She put her play away and began her master's program. "The idea was, I would fall in love with it and do a Ph.D.," she says. "That didn't happen." Instead, she discovered her life's work off-campus, when she began tutoring a young boy from the Dominican Republic in English through a volunteer program at her church. After she finished her degree, she took a job at a Washington elementary school.

That year, she sent "Wit" out to a new batch of theaters. In 1995, "Wit" was produced by California's South Coast Repertory theater, then in 1997, at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater -- under the direction of her childhood pal, Derek Anson Jones (he played Vivian at the very first reading of "Wit" around Ms. Edson's mom's kitchen table). By the time the play made it to New York's tiny MCC Theater this fall, Ms. Edson had moved to Atlanta, where her partner Linda Merrill had accepted a curatorial post at the High Museum.

On opening night, she caught a flight to New York after a long day of teaching and administrative meetings and reached the theater just before the play ended. "I was there changing in the restroom as everyone was coming out," she recalls. "This woman was in the next stall crying and blowing her nose." The following Monday, she was back in kindergarten.

Her day begins at 7:00 a.m., when she and her co-teacher, Sandra Reid, prepare for their class of 24 children, most from the inner city and many from what are termed "print-poor" homes. "The best hope these kids have is if they learn to read by the third grade," says Ms. Edson. Her classroom is bright and cheerful, with alphabet letters on the walls, a terrarium, a clutch of computers and low-to-the-ground work tables with tiny chairs.

From the moment the five-year-olds come in at 8 until they break for lunch at 11:30, the classroom's primary colors blur with activity. Ms. Edson and Ms. Reid lead their charges through math exercises (they count up to today's date), a reading lesson, a science project (planting seeds in plastic cups of dirt), and lots and lots of songs -- many of them penned by Ms. Edson herself. "We sing a lot in our class," she explained. "Singing is really good for language awareness." The children also work on their journals, drawing pictures of themselves and their families and copying out simple phrases about them.

Nothing escapes Ms. Edson's eye. Troublemakers -- "I have six boys ready to get in a fist fight at any time" -- are taken aside and spoken to quietly. Another little boy is singled out for praise. "He needed a purple crayon to do his drawing, and so he said, 'May I please get a purple crayon?' What do you think class, thumbs up or thumbs down?" The class gives him a unanimous thumbs up. The contrast between Ms. Edson and the implacable Vivian -- who in one scene, stonily refuses to grant an extension to a student whose grandmother has died -- couldn't be more dramatic.

But then, Ms. Edson isn't quite sure that she likes Vivian. "I'm not saying smart is bad," she says slowly. "Smart is not bad -- but kind is good."

Copyright 1998 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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