RETURN OF THE NATIVE

Missourian Lanford Wilson comes to the Rep to stage his new play, Book of Days, with longtime collaborator Marshall Mason. A look behind the scenes at the men who changed American theater.

Campbell and Regan run the scene again, this time mulling over their responses to each line. The scene turns ragged, clumsy, and takes twice the time it took before. The two professionals look lost out there, but a vulnerability in Campbell's character is exposed that wasn't there before, and a firmness in Regan's.

"That's better," Mason says.

"Yeah, yeah," Wilson concurs.

Jennifer Silverberg
When Jim Haynie auditioned for the role of Walt, Steve Woolf says, "He walked in and it was like he walked right out of the Ozarks. He walked in and sat down and said, 'I'm just gonna say this ó this is the most important play I've read in years.'"
Left to right: Matt Rauch, Dee Hoty, Suzanne Regan and Marshall Mason. "I discovered a long time ago that the acting process cannot be shortchanged," Mason asserts. "It must be given full opportunity."
Jennifer Silverberg
Left to right: Matt Rauch, Dee Hoty, Suzanne Regan and Marshall Mason. "I discovered a long time ago that the acting process cannot be shortchanged," Mason asserts. "It must be given full opportunity."

At the close of three hours of rehearsal, actor Matthew Rauch can't contain his exuberance. "It's like being in a master class," he says. "Then, every once in a while, I look over and go, "That's Lanford Wilson over there.'"

"Marshall and Lanford changed the face of American theater," says Regan one evening as the cast relax together with drinks and dinner at the apartment complex the Rep reserves for visiting actors. "I'm just happy to be in the same room. These are the people you read about."

What Regan, and at least the younger cast members, have read about is one of the most unique collaborations in American theater, one that continues, after more than 30 years, with Book of Days. After Wilson's play opens the Rep's season on Friday, Sept. 10, and concludes its four-week run, it moves to Hartford, Conn., in October, and then, if the New York critics are at the very least respectful, a possible spot on Broadway.

Both men are in their 60s now. Mason says he looks back to when he and Wilson met in the wild off-off-Broadway scene of the mid-1960s and the subsequent formation of Circle Rep as "like another life." In that other life, he and Wilson were a couple of guys from the sticks trying to make a creative life for themselves in Greenwich Village (Mason from Amarillo, Texas; Wilson from Ozark, Mo.). They found that they shared a vision of theater that coincided with a historical moment of questioning, exploration and confrontation, a time when the facades of middle-class America were to be torn down and artists were to express the newly revealed truths. At performance spaces such as Cafe La Mama and Caffe Cino, artists gathered who sought a new, vital theater — as their predecessors O'Neill, Williams, Miller and Albee had. Sam Shepard was a teenager from the Midwest waiting tables. Wilson and Mason wore their hair to their shoulders and seemed so in sync that people had trouble telling them apart. Whatever had been taboo was ripe for exploration. Race, sexuality, religion, the war — subjects formerly avoided were now an obsession. A young producer and entrepreneur, Joseph Papp, took a neglected musical, had the cast stand naked in one brief tableau, and created a phenomenon called Hair.

Circle Rep emerged out of the revolutionary spirit of the time, founded by Mason with actors Tanya Berezin and Rob Thirkield. The company was to provide a home for talent coming out of the off- off-Broadway scene, a place where playwrights, actors, directors and technicians could mature, develop and grow. A partial list of the artists who were part of the Circle Rep experience from 1969-96 (when it finally folded because of burdensome debts) is a record of the finest playwrights and performing artists of a generation: Judd Hirsch, Christopher Lloyd, Mark Medoff, Jon Robin Baitz, Swoosie Kurtz, Kathy Bates, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Christopher Reeve, David Ives, Jeff Daniels, John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Gary Sinise, Conchata Ferrell. In the past, remarks Jonathan Hogan, "the theater made stars rather than recruited them."

Circle Rep did both contemporary theater and new interpretations of the classics, but of the playwrights who wrote for the company Wilson was the most integral, and the most astonishing. The Hot l Baltimore was the play that put Circle Rep on the map — at least in regard to mainstream theater audiences. Hogan was a member of the cast, his first work with Mason and Wilson. He remembers the preview performance and the audience rising with applause when the lights finally faded on the play's assortment of misfits. He says that before opening night, people stood in line to put their names on waiting lists for seats. After Hot l, Mason and Wilson were "discovered," and Hogan met his wife, the actress Stephanie Gordon, in the cast. "I got to see her naked," he recalls fondly. Indeed, this was a particularly nude time in American theater. Stripping the facade from American mores meant literally stripping. When the Circle Rep closed, Sylviane Gold of the New York Times wrote an anecdotal summary of the company's influence, including the story of a young actor named William Hurt disrobing every night to dive into a pool of water in a Corinne Jacker play, My Life. When he caught a cold, he was replaced by understudy Christopher Reeve.

But the legacy of Circle Rep has less to do with flesh than it does with a group of artists who worked to make theater an essential part of the life of the times. Out of that effort, it is Wilson's work is that most endures. Wilson's plays make art out of the vernacular, and like the Russian master Chekhov, whom he reveres, Wilson presents the audience with an unnerving reflection of themselves — their speech, their lives — to provoke an examination of those lives.

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