Remembering Lanford Wilson: Colleagues Reflect About the Playwright

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21 Apr 2011

Lanford Wilson
Lanford Wilson

Lanford Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of such works as Balm in Gilead, Fifth of July, Hot l Baltimore and Talley's Folly, died on March 24 at the age of 73. He touched the lives of many theatre artists over a five-decade career. talked to some of his closest colleagues. 

MARSHALL W. MASON (A regular director of Wilson's plays, he co-founded Circle Repertory Theatre with Wilson): (This quote is excerpted from the Eulogy that Mason read at Wilson's memorial.) "Lanford was driven as an artist to write some of the most memorable plays of his generation. His work will be treasured for his extraordinary use of language, in a style that came to be called "lyric realism." He took ordinary speech and made it sound like poetry. His plays will be remembered for the complex, richly human characters he created. He was a true innovator: Lanford was the first writer ever to create scenes that were to be enacted simultaneously, like a three-ring circus. Lanford thought theatre should be as exciting as a circus, and he believed an audience was capable of understanding more than one scene at a time. He’ll always be highly regarded for his uncompromising passion: he believed in people and their possibilities…


Marshall W. Mason

"Lanford was called the poet of the disenfranchised. He wrote with passion and understanding about the outcasts of our society. And he never passed a beggar without giving whatever was asked for…

"It has been noted that Lanford was always looking for a family. Coming from a broken home, Lanford came to New York with Michael Warren Powell on a Greyhound Bus, and he found his first home at the Café Cino, the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway. When his plays grew too large to be produced at the Cino, he found a family at La MaMa with Ellen Stewart. His longest-lasting, deepest family relationship came from his home at Circle Rep, where he wrote plays for us over the next 26 years. After the demise of Circle Rep, he found a family with Jeff Daniels' Purple Rose Theater in Michigan, modeled after Circle Rep, and he wrote his last two plays for that company. In New York, those last two plays were produced in a season devoted to his work by the family at the Signature Theatre. And he was famous for being a genuine 'Broadway baby.' Lanford attended nearly every performance of every play he had produced on Broadway. Nobody enjoyed a Lanford Wilson play more than Lanford Wilson…

"In his wonderful book 'Children of Midnight,' Salmon Rushdie wrote: 'We each owe death a life.' Lanford Wilson has paid that debt with a treasury of riches he has bequeathed to the world."


Gary Sinise
photo courtesy CBS

GARY SINISE (a founder of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which produced many Wilson plays, he acted in the famed 1984 Off-Broadway revival of Balm in Gilead): "I have not seen Lanford for many years but have such fond memories of him. Terry [Kinney] was the guy who introduced me to Lanford's work with a production of Home Free he directed down at Illinois State when he was in college there. We did it again a few years later during one of our first seasons in the basement in Highland Park. The first time I saw [John] Malkovich he was auditioning for Terry for that play. He didn't get the part. Laurie [Metcalf] was incredible in both productions.

"Then there was the St. Nicholas production of Fifth of July in 1978. Steven Schachter hired all the actors from Steppenwolf, the first time we were paid. $100 per week. $88 after taxes. Then, of course, Balm in Gilead. The most time was spent when he was around for rehearsals on his adaptation of The Three Sisters. Burn This would come later.

"But I believe the first time I met him was during my first trip to New York back when I became artistic director in 1980, shortly after we finished our initial run of Balm in Gilead. Here I was, this little artistic director in a corduroy sport coat, a fish out of water in NYC, running around meeting agents and trying to figure out a way to bring the 30-person Balm in Gilead to New York. Met Albert Poland for the first time. Asked him to help get it produced and he looked at me like I was completely out of my mind. We had managed to talk Marshall Mason into coming to Chicago to see the production and so there was a little inroad with Circle Rep.

"Had a meeting down at their offices and there I met Lanford for the first time. The beginning of a relationship between our two theatres that would eventually lead to our collaboration on Balm in Gilead in 1984 at Circle Rep, with then a move to the brand new Minetta Lane Theater, the inaugural production there. Ran ten months in New York. Huge hit for us. That was an incredible time in the evolution of Steppenwolf and Lanford's work had a profound effect on all of us in those early days.

"Thank you. Lanford. You gave us all many great works which helped to shape our company. We are in your debt."


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