Remembering Lanford Wilson, in Chicago, and out

March 29, 2011

The death Thursday (March 24) of Lanford Wilson, 73, one of America's most distinguished playwrights, ended a career that began in Chicago 50 years ago and had long and strong local affiliations. Born and raised in Missouri, Wilson was barely past 20 when he arrived in Chicago in the late 1950's, a college drop-out who earned a living as a commercial artist. During the nearly six years he lived here, Wilson took University of Chicago adult extension courses which inspired his first writing efforts in the form of short stories and one-act plays. In 1962 he moved to New York in classic bohemian fashion, as he told me when I first met him in the early 1970's: "I skipped out owing three months rent, bought a one-way bus ticket to New York, and arrived with $12 dollars in my pocket and the clap."

In New York, Wilson found himself in the right place at the right time and became a founding figure of the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement. Along with writers such as Robert Patrick, Megan Terry, Sam Shepherd, Paul Foster, Adrienne Kennedy, Tom Eyen and Marie-Irene Fornes, Wilson was nurtured artistically by Joe Cino and Ellen Stewart, the legendary founders of Caffe Cino and La Mama Experimental Theatre Club respectively. In less than a decade, Wilson had established himself as a leading new American voice with plays such as "The Madness of Lady Bright," the challenging voice drama "The Rimers of Eldritch," "Balm in Gilead," "Serenading Louis" and, in 1973, the play that established his commercial viability, "The Hot L Baltimore."

By that date Wilson already had become widely produced in regional theaters. In Chicago his plays were championed first at the long-gone Academy Festival Playhouse and then by director George Keathley at the defunct Ivanhoe Theatre, where a young Christopher Walken appeared in Wilson's "Lemon Sky" in 1970 and where Keathley staged the first production outside New York of "The Hot L Baltimore."

Lance and I stayed in touch over the years although we saw each other only rarely. Part of the reason is that Wilson hated to fly. If he couldn't get there by car (he himself didn't drive) or, preferably, by train, he just didn't go. So I would see him on his professional visits to Chicago (and, once, at the Purple Rose Theatre in Michigan) or mine to New York.

Meanwhile, Steppenwolf Theatre Company discovered Wilson and the fact that his plays were marvelous ensemble vehicles. In 1978, the old St. Nicholas Theatre Company hosted Steppenwolf in its first Chicago production (moving down from a church basement in Highland Park), Wilson's "The Fifth of July”. Laurie Metcalf still was young enough to play the precocious teen-aged daughter, and Jeff Perry and John Malkovich played the gay lovers. Soon after, Steppenwolf's 1980 production of "Balm in Gilead" at the Jane Addams Center on Broadway at Belmont (now condos) was remounted Off-Broadway in New York and helped put Steppenwolf on the national map.

The 'wolfies returned to Wilson in a big, big way with the 1986 world premiere of "Burn This," starring Malkovich and Joan Allen, which played the Royal George Theatre here on its way to Broadway and a clutch of Tony Awards.

By that time, Lanford Wilson had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for "Talley's Folly," which joined "The Fifth of July" and "Talley and Son" as the Talley Family trilogy, all set in Lebanon, MO (not coincidentally Wilson's birthplace). As Lance told me in 1985, when he received the Pulitzer news his initial reaction was, "Dear God, they've gotten the wrong play. It should have been for 'The Fifth of July.'" Wilson was reacting to the fact that "Talley’s Folly," which is a two-character romance, is not nearly as complex in character, compound storylines or theme as the large-cast "The Fifth of July." The play was a break-through in that it features two lead characters who are a gay couple within an extended family, but the fact that they are gay isn't an issue, a source of conflict or even a point of discussion; it merely is another given circumstance of the play. For 1978, such a depiction of normalcy was fresh.

Lanford Wilson's death comes just as Steppenwolf returns to his work for the first time in some years. A major new production of his early classic, "The Hot L Baltimore," currently is in previews at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre and will open officially on April 2 for a run through May 29.