MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Cynthia Nixon is best known for her role as the sharply dressed, sharp-tongued lawyer, Miranda, in the HBO series "Sex And the City." Now, as Jeff London reports, she's taken on a very different character in a Broadway revival of the Pulitzer Prize winning play, "Wit."
JEFF LONDON, BYLINE: In her dressing room at the Friedman Theater, Cynthia Nixon has a nightly ritual. She rubs Nivea cream all over her shaved scalp to sooth the razor burns. Being completely bald is one of the many demands of the character she plays in "Wit," a brilliant college professor named Vivian Bearing, who's battling ovarian cancer.
CYNTHIA NIXON: She talks so much, she's verbose. 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.
LONDON: Not the least of which is that, for much of the play, she speaks directly to the audience, something that's established at the outset when Vivian walks on stage in a hospital gown and a red baseball cap pushing a portable I.V. drip.
NIXON: (as Vivian Bearing) Hi. How are you feeling today? Great. That's just great. This is not my standard greeting, I assure you. I tend towards something a little more formal, a little less inquisitive, such as, say, hello.
LONDON: And for the next 90 minutes or so, Vivian Bearing dares herself in this unflinchingly honest and, yes, very witty play.
NIXON: But you have to watch out for Professor Bearing. Hold onto your wallet while you're with her because she is an unreliable narrator.
LONDON: Margaret 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.
MARGARET EDSON: 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. She and I are in struggle for narrative control for 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.
NIXON: (as Vivian Bearing) You cannot imagine how time can be so still, it hangs, it weighs and yet there is so little of it. It goes so slowly and yet it 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.
LONDON: And after a long awkward silence, she concludes.
NIXON: (as Vivian Bearing) Not to worry. Brevity is the soul of wit.
LONDON: Nixon says part of what makes Vivian's story so compelling is how Margaret Edson has leavened it with humor.
NIXON: Even at the worst times for Vivian, even when terrible, terrible things are happening, somehow, Margaret has just put those laughs in there and I think the audience just gives full voice to them 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.
LONDON: Like when Vivian's nurse, Susie, prepares a morphine drip to dull the pain.
NIXON: (as Vivian Bearing) I trust this will have a soporific effect.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Susie Monahan) Well, I don't know about that, but it sure does make you sleepy.
LONDON: And Vivian then explains to Susie what soporific means.
NIXON: In the end, she says, I'm a teacher, and I think, you know, what is knowledge for, is the question that really concerns Margaret and concerns the play.
LONDON: Teaching has been Margaret Edson's vocation for well over a decade now. She found out she won the Pulitzer Prize while she was teaching kindergarten. She now teaches social studies to sixth graders, even as her show has been previewing on Broadway.
EDSON: Teaching is me. Teaching is alive. 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. I love teaching.
LONDON: And Broadway audiences can learn much about life, death and the holy sonnets of John Donne when "Wit" opens at the Manhattan Theatre Club tonight.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff London in New York.