One of the most prolific and esteemed American playwrights of the past 30 years, Lanford Wilson could easily sit back and rest on the laurels of his Lemon Sky, Talley's Folly (a Pulitzer) and The Fifth of July, not to mention the commercial success of The Hot-l Baltimore and Burn This. But a playwright keeps writing, and Wilson is not only readying his latest, Book of Days, for a co production in St. Louis and Hartford, he's already finished the first draft of his next play, The Raindance, about barflies in Los Alamos at the time of atomic testing there. At the end of a day's rehearsal of Book of Days at St. Louis Rep, Wilson took some time to chat by phone with Playbill On-Line. He noted that if the show goes well in Hartford, New York producers "have a definite interest."
Playbill On-Line: You call Book of Days a "mystery-drama with comedy in it." Meaning...?
Lanford Wilson: Well, the impetus for the play came from reading Shaw's Saint Joan, and I said, "What would it do to a person to play that part. How would it change them?" And then I started thinking if it changed her in this way, what would that do to the town and community she's part of? So in Book of Days an actress playing Joan of Arc in a small community theatre starts to discover things about the death of the town patriarch. It was supposedly a hunting accident during a tornado, but that doesn't ring true, and Joan of Arc suspects foul play. The play was commissioned by [Jeff Daniels'] Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Michigan, which is a town not unlike the fictional Dublin, Missouri, in the play. It's a prosperous, small midwestern town with one major industry. In Chelsea it's Jiffy Mix, in Dublin it's a cheese factory, and the patriarch was a big businessman there.
PBOL: How has the writing process been on the play?
LW: Pretty much as I thought it would be. I usually don't outline my pieces, and the characters take me where they want to. Still, the characters developed deeper than I expected; I became fascinated with them. The play is now finished and ready to go, and we've rehearsed the first 25 pages. There have been little changes as we go along, but really minute, like two words at the end of a sentence.
PBOL: Are you already planning stagings of The Raindance?
LW: Purple Rose commissioned this one, too. Guy Sanville saw the first act, showed it to Jeff [Daniels] and he said yes. Purple Rose is a really good place to start, as it has terrific audiences from Detroit and Ann Arbor. They get 97-98 percent attendance, and that's without subscriptions. Raindance (or maybe The Rain Dance -- I haven't decided on one word or two yet) takes place in 1944 with the people making the Atomic Bomb. These five people are the ones who hang out in the bar all night long and yack and talk, but the actors also double as Oppenheimer and crew. Three of the men in the play are physicists working on the bomb; one woman is the wife, she's a draftsman, also working on the bomb. An Indian in the Army (an MP) hangs out with them and is very worldly. So many of the stories of Los Alamos in New Mexico ignore the fact that it was so near a Native-American reservation -- the one where Maria Martinez, the potter, made her famous black-on-black (glossy on matte or matte on glossy) pottery.
PBOL: Your last show in New York was Sympathetic Magic, yet your last produced work was A Sense of Place, or, Virgil Is Still the Frog Boy. Will Manhattan be seeing that piece?
LW: That play was commissioned by the Bay Street Theatre on Long Island and then had a gorgeous production at St. Petersburg's American Stage, and it's scheduled to be done at Arizona State University, but it hasn't had a nibble in New York. Not even the large repertories have glommed onto it. I think eventually Virgil will be big on college campuses because all the kids are 25-30, so it's within their experience -- it's about computers and money and ragging on dad. PBOL: It's obvious you're still turning out a great deal of new work, but do you ever go back and rework some of the older ones?
LW: Mostly, I sort of drop them and walk away. Smith & Kraus are doing a volume of my collected works. So I tightened and clarified Angels Fall just a little bit. If I had time and wasn't worried about current work and I might really go back into that one. I also think about The Rimers of Eldritch; I know so much more about Josh than I did back then, but will I work on it again? NO. Instead, I've put some of Josh into other characters, so those things develop into different characters. You keep trying to evolve.
PBOL: Is there a particularly good piece of playwriting advice you've received over the years?
LW: The best was Joe Cino, who ran Cafe Cino, who said, "Do what you have to do." We grew up theatrically with that philosophy. We had such a great apprenticeship at Cino and La Mama and Judson Church. So many of the writers were so prolific; we were writing constantly, since shows were 30-40 minutes long and ran for a week. We got in the habit of writing and writing rapidly. So Sam Shephard and John Guare -- a bunch of us actually -- became writers. And shows were rarely reviewed, so we were doing it for ourselves. We once did Home Free, no one showed up. Joe said "do it for the room," and we did it for Joe and me and Marshall Mason. And it was a damn good performance. But after Joe died, no one was knocking on our doors, so we started our own theatre, Circle Rep.
PBOL: And if Circle Rep hadn't succeeded, or you hadn't had that inner drive as a playwright, what might have you become?
LW: Probably a landscape designer or an architect. I am a kind of amateur graphic artist. Daniel Irvine and I did all the posters at Circle Rep for my shows, and whatever other shows they'd let me do the artwork for. The real sad thing is I am a lousy mathematician, or I'd certainly be an astrophysicist. That just fascinates me no end, but I have a ceiling of understanding. I can't tell you the research I did on Sympathetic Magic -- that play took 15 years to write. I kept running into a brick wall and said "Now what?" A year later I'd go back and think, oh that, and then another brick wall. In an early draft, the characters discover a star older than what we thought the universe was -- and then two years later it actually happened. Another draft dealt with some AIDS drugs they thought would really work -- and then that really started to happen. Ultimately I got desperate and asked the scientists I was working with to give me something that won't happen but is within the realm of possibility. Five astronomers came up with possibility of seeing an object that didn't correspond to the laws of physics as we know them. Which is still unlikely to happen -- not impossible, but unlikely.
PBOL: Speaking of flashes of inspiration, are there any plays by other writers that you wish you'd written?
LW: Oh, Angels in America -- My God! I was in Philadelphia and there was a script of Millennium Approaches, and I was jumping up and down. I took it down to Marshall [Mason] -- we were doing Redwood Curtain -- and I said you have to read this NOW! We tried very hard to get it for Circle Rep. Of course, that went away real quick... Also [Edward] Albee's Three Tall Women. Less than ten minutes into that play you say, "You sonofabitch, this is really wonderful."
PBOL: When did the wonder begin for you, as far as theatregoing and then playwriting?
LW: The first play I saw was Hansel & Gretel in grade school; I screamed and yelled and did all the things you're supposed to do. In high school I was in a one-act play which took place in a rubber raft, and after that I played Tom in our junior play, The Glass Menagerie. But what changed my life in freshman class [at Ozark High School] was going to Springfield's Southwest Missouri State College to see a dynamite production of Death of a Salesman. When those walls started vanishing and turning into trees, I was hooked. Almost the same week we saws the touring company of Brigadoon. Again, the floor starts fading away and buildings start to disappear. I almost thought that had to happen in every play. Actually, in Redwood Curtain, I do say "the floor vanishes, forest and house." At the end, the forest turns inside out and the house appears. I knew it was possible.
-- By David Lefkowitz