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.

Wilson's style of theater is so unique that it's been awarded its own academic label: "lyrical realism." His friend and collaborator, Mason, shame-facedly admits, "I'm probably the one who coined that phrase, because I was trying to describe what we did — a kind of realism as opposed to naturalism. Lyrical because the language is elevated so that the real event becomes a poetic event."

Tennessee Williams is a profound influence, says Mason. Circle Rep was the first company to bring Williams' first play, Battle of Angels, to the New York stage, and both director and playwright remember their mentor with great affection. "Williams was always trying to elevate the theater from the mundane naturalism into something poetic," says Mason. "In Williams it's almost a bit excessive: "For nowadays the world is lit by lightning!' It's wonderful, it's poetry, it's extraordinary. But people don't really talk like that any more than they talk like they do in Shakespeare.

"I loved Williams' use of language — that's one of the things that drew me to him. Lanford has an even finer ear, in my opinion, because Lanford's poetry is so much more modest than Tennessee's. But he has the gift of making people sound like they really talk."

For example, in Burn This, the fiery, violent, sexy Pale tries to explain himself to the woman who will become his eventual love interest: "Yeah, I'm a dresser. I keep myself neat. I'm fuckin' up the back of my pants, gettin' all fucked up. Fuckin' linen. Half linen, half wool — fuckin' useless. I could've been the dancer. Who needs it? Our old man, when we was kids, music all over the place. You couldn't hear yourself think. Vivaldi, Puccini, we all knew all that crap, Shostakovich. I've done — like — whole symphonies, amazed people, natural talent, totally original shit, like in the shower. I don't sing Hall & Oates, I compose — like — these tone poems, concertos and shit — huge big orchestrations, use like two orchestras."

Wilson composes a vulgar music for Pale, a jazz improvisation full of stops, starts, phrases that drive inward to a sharp edge and others that soar outward into brief incandescent arcs. Pale is a character who is both threatening and alluring, and wholly unpredictable, so each sentence is a surprise. Any actor who didn't remember to keep both alls in "we all knew all that crap" deserves a fine.

Matthew Rauch, who's cast opposite Regan as Ruth's husband in Book of Days, says that playing the role of Pale is what confirmed his need to be an actor. In a college production at Princeton, Rauch remembers, "I said the line "My heart hurts' and I heard this — " he makes the sound of an anguished sigh — "come out of the audience. I felt, if this is how it feels to connect with an audience, this is what I want to do all the time." Few contemporary playwrights connect on the visceral level that Wilson does. To speak in terms of an "American soul" invites cynical disdain, but that is precisely the territory Wilson explores. Just as audiences in Moscow were stunned by Chekhov's plays, feeling they'd been caught in a mirror, so audiences who came to the Circle Rep to see The Hot l Baltimore in 1973 saw a piece of American life before them presented with explicit honesty, with humor, affection, frustration, anger and tears.

Even in Wilson's comedic work a moral anger rises from his plays. Coming from a generation that sought to confront the banality of middle-class lives, Wilson continually turns his anger on the complacency of a country that is willing to accept, and perpetuate, a false identity of itself. For example, in Talley's Folly — which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 — a Jewish accountant, Matt Friedman (a role Wilson wrote for Judd Hirsch), drives from St. Louis to woo Sally Talley in Lebanon, Mo. (the Talleys are a prominent Lebanon clan Wilson examines in two other plays that make up the Talley cycle — Fifth of July and Talley & Son). In the opening scene, Matt speaks directly to the audience, introducing the romantic situation, describing the play as "a waltz." The time is 1944, near the end of World War II. Although the play is a romance, Wilson delivers a brief history lesson about "the good war" that isn't often told. Sally says to Matt, "People are afraid to admit it, but I think they're worried about what's going to happen when the boys come back." Matt, who cynically refers to the war as a "sideshow," responds testily: "Down here they're afraid to admit it? I'm glad to hear it. It shows humility. Humility is good for the soul. In St. Louis they tremble in their beds at night. Headlines in the papers. One businessman said the war had to last another two years or the nation would never recover."

As World War II recedes further into the golden cloud of nostalgia, Wilson won't allow American history to become a soft, cozy dream, reminding his audience that this country has always been pulled by forces less noble than the ideals of liberty and freedom, and as ruthless as the goals of economic expediency.

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