Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lanford Wilson -- 1937-2011

There have been a lot of influential people in my life. My parents, of course, and my siblings, my former partner, caring teachers, good friends, and, not surprisingly, writers. I can think of several who shaped my views and helped me form my own voice as a writer. One of the most influential was -- and will always be -- Lanford Wilson. He died Thursday at the age of 73.

The first play of his that I read was Fifth of July. I was in grad school at the University of Colorado in 1983 and had not yet decided what I would write my thesis on. I was kicking around some ideas about the realistic theatre movement and not really excited about it. Then one day I happened to pick up a copy of the play that was lying on one of my office-mates' desk. I sat down and read the entire play in one sitting, completely absorbed in the world he had created of the Talley family -- Ken, the gay Vietnam vet who had lost both legs in the war; and his lover Jed; June, Ken's sister and her daughter Shirley; Aunt Sally, who carried around the ashes of her beloved husband Matt in a candy box, and all of them in this rambling old farmhouse in rural Missouri. The voices were so real I could hear them, and when I saw the play filmed with love by his longtime collaborator and director Marshall W. Mason, I knew I had found not just a kindred spirit as a writer, but someone who knew the same people I did and felt as deeply about them.

I immediately sought out as many of his plays as I could find; Talley's Folly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that tells of the romance between Matt and Sally in 1944; The Hot L Baltimore, an ensemble play about a run-down hotel and the characters who inhabit the lobby; Balm in Gilead; Serenading Louie; The Gingham Dog; The Rimers of Eldritch; The Mound Builders; Lemon Sky; Angels Fall; early one-acts from his days and nights at the Caffe Cino, scene studies and exercises for the Circle Repertory Company that he founded with Marshall W. Mason, Tanya Berezin, and Rob Thirkield in 1969. They ranged from wildly funny to scary dark and everything in between, all with his distinctive lyrical touch of wit, charm, and acidic bite when necessary. I never read a play of his that didn't instill a sense of wonder and enjoyment, even when he wrote characters that made me cringe. His world is not populated with grand heroes or dastardly villains; they're ordinary people learning to cope, love, care, and in many respects they are outsiders who know all too well that the world is not giving them some great reward. His plays deal with the dramas and traumas of life, but not on a grand scale; loss and sorrow as well as joy and love are expressed with a touch or a word, not with long heartfelt speeches, and that makes them all that much more powerful.

I knew almost immediately that I had found what I was looking for, and when I proposed to my doctoral committee a study of the collaboration of Lanford Wilson and Marshall W. Mason at the Circle Rep, it was accepted. I also knew I had to get in touch with him, so I wrote to his agent, Bridget Aschenberg, requesting to meet him and interview him. Ms. Aschenberg, who had a reputation for being terse, wrote back and said she would consider it but not to get my hopes up. I was disappointed, but then my adviser suggested that I simply go around the agent and contact Mr. Wilson directly through the theatre. I did, and within a week I had a hand-written response expressing delight that someone wanted to write about him and told me to let him know when I would be in New York and we could meet. In March 1985 I took the plunge and went to New York to begin my research and interview both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Mason. I remember distinctly walking up the flight of stairs to the offices of the Circle Rep, located in a slightly run-down Art Deco style building in Greenwich Village that also housed the rehearsal space. My appointment with Mr. Wilson was on the book, but -- oh no -- he was stuck out at his house on Long Island, laid up with sciatica. Sag Harbor was hours away and I was on a shoe-string budget. But then the phone rang. It was him. He apologized profusely for missing our appointment, and he said, "Please call me Lance; why don't we just chat for a while?" So we did, and we found out that we had a lot of things in common. We must have talked for an hour, and I stopped taking notes after the first five minutes because it was like talking to a friend.

Later that day I went to a local pub with Marshall W. Mason, who graciously answered all my questions into my little mini-recorder, and then invited me to watch a play reading of a new work the next afternoon. I got to watch him work as a director and learned more in one afternoon than all of the classes I'd taken on directing in my college career. I also took notes because back in Boulder I was in the middle of directing a production of Fifth of July. The notes were the first thing I unpacked when I got home.

Later that summer I drove all the way across country -- making a stop in Stratford, Ontario -- to see a performance of the final play in the Talley series, Talley & Son in Saratoga Springs, New York. It was the third of three and rounded out my studies of the Wilson/Mason collaboration. After the performance I sat up until two a.m. with them talking about their work, listening to their stories, meeting their company (including Helen Stenborg), and knowing that my doctoral thesis had now become a labor of love.

In 2001, with much prodding from me and several other fans of his work, the William Inge Theatre Festival honored Lanford Wilson with their Distinguished Achievement in American Theatre award. In one respect, Lance didn't want the award; he told me that he had a lot more to do and it was too early to be recognized for his work. Marshall Mason once said, "Lanford still hasn't written a play as good as [A] Streetcar [Named Desire]. He may not. Whatever. He will have written plays that no one else could have written... He'll find his own niche in history. We'll see."
"Matt didn’t believe in death and I don’t either.... There’s no such thing. It goes on and then it stops. You can’t worry about the stopping, you have to worry about the going on." – Sally Talley, Fifth of July.
Photo by Maxine Hicks.