Remembering Lanford Wilson: Colleagues Reflect About the Playwright

By Robert Simonson
21 Apr 2011

Laurie Metcalf

LAURIE METCALF (a member of Steppenwolf, she acted in Balm in Gilead): "It was Lanford's writing in Balm in Gilead that showed us how a funny, clueless, brash character named Darlene could affect an audience in such a tender way. Twenty-seven years later, I still meet people who were moved by the production. Interpreting his Darlene was an honor."

ROBYN GOODMAN (New York producer and co-founder of Second Stage): "We produced three plays by Lanford at Second Stage and the thing I remember most is his warm enthusiasm for the artists with which he worked. He proudly helped discover Mark Brokaw and Amy Ryan in The Rimers of Eldritch, swooned over Jeff Daniels in Lemon Sky and showed giddy excitement over Dianne Weist's profound vulnerability in Serenading Louie. He was a brilliant fan of those who illuminated his gorgeous words."

GUY SANVILLE (artistic director of the Purple Rose Theatre Company): "I was honored to direct the world premiere of Lanford's last two full-length plays. He was ruthless with his own work. He was interested and fascinated with what his work inspired in others. When we were early into rehearsals for Book of Days, we were working on the baptism scene. The character of Earl, who idealizes the villain of the play, James Bates, and later commits murder for him, is about to be baptized by him. I looked over at Lanford and saw tears running down his face. I asked him what was wrong. He said, 'People who believe too much smear me.' I will miss most of all the days in Sag Harbor, the all-night conversations, the walks in his beloved garden and even those four-hour long trips to the local plant nurseries. He was my oracle. I could and often did call on him any time of the day or night for advice and truth. The Purple Rose Theatre Company would not have come to be without him and Marshall and the Circle Rep and their devotion to Jeff. I will always be in his debt."

JUDD HIRSCH (actor in the original production of Hot l Baltimore and Talley's Folly): "All actors love to speak Lanford Wilson: to be real and poetic — that is devoutly to be wished. His observations on the American Midwestern and historic ways these characters have in common are both unique and recognizable. He and Tennessee Williams pretty much cornered the market on writing plays about this country of downtrodden, disappointed, yet determined, love-starved people. He made them all worthwhile...and that's why I shall remember Lanford Wilson all the days left of my life."


Jeff Daniels

JEFF DANIELS (an actor in New York City productions of Fifth of July, Redwood Curtain and Lemon Sky and, at his Purple Rose Theatre Company, a producer of Wilson's work): (This quote is taken from a statement on Purple Rose's website.) "Lanford Wilson loved his words. He wrote in a way that showed us who we are, why we are, and where we're headed whether we like it or not. He let no one off the hook; not his actors, not his audience, not his critics, not the American Theatre, not the country nor himself. Especially, himself. He demanded excellence, hated hypocrisy, despised mediocrity, and loved life.

"Along with Marshall W. Mason and the rest of New York's Circle Repertory Company, Lanford was an artistic mentor and a life-long source of inspiration. A devout playwright, Lanford was incapable of selling out. No matter how broke he was, he refused to write anything other than his plays his way. I'd tell him, 'Get your agent to get you a gig doctoring a film script.' He looked at me and all but spit, 'Movies are bupkus!' And yet, when I did a film he liked — and thankfully, there were a few —he went out of his way to tell me. He adored work that mattered, that meant something, that counted. In his world, that was not too much to ask.

"His wit was legendary. In the late '70s, Danton Stone, John Hogan and I wrote a play about a down and out talent agent and a young lounge singer interested in making the career transition from Queens to Manhattan. Beyond desperate, they hit the road and toured the country, hoping to become successful enough to be asked to dine with Wayne Newton. The title of our maiden epic was 42 Cities in 40 Nights. Through dogged persistence and a unearned belief in ourselves, Circle Rep finally allowed us a reading in front of the rest of the company. Blinded by our brilliance, our dirge of a comedy lasted three hours. After the reading, everyone scattered for a much needed break. Dreaming of Broadway, I found my way to the rest room. Standing at the urinals was Lanford. I slid in beside him. 'What'd you think?' I said. Without looking at me, he said, 'I'll give you a hundred bucks for the jokes.' Then he hit the flusher and walked out…

"I met him in 1976 in the Greenwich Village offices of Circle Rep. Disheveled, he looked as if he had fallen into the chair, his arms and legs splayed out in four directions. There was a quick introduction. 'Jeff, you know Lanford, don't you?' I responded by staring. I'd never seen a living, breathing playwright before. 'Hey, doll, how are ya?' Somewhere, someone said he was working on a new play. Somehow, I asked him how it was going. 'I have no idea,' he sighed...

"When Fifth of July was published, I asked him to sign my copy. Like any actor, I hoped for some glowing words regarding my definitive characterization. Instead, Lanford wrote: 'Make it all count.' And then he signed his name.

"That’s what he did his whole life. He made it all count and then he signed his name."

TANYA BEREZIN (co-founder with Wilson of Circle Rep, she appeared in many of his plays): "I remember the garden he designed for me. He did the bones, I did the plants. We fancied ourselves Vita and Harold. I remember every Christmas since 1967. I remember speaking his words. I remember the glorious challenge of his standards."