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.

"So when you see that, that's just amazing. They're no longer your words anymore. They're his words. It's really thrilling."

Wilson nearly breaks down himself as he relates the anecdote, caught up in the emotion of the moment he's recalling. Wilson, who seeks the genuine in art, embraces the same in his life.

"When they're really good, it's very exciting," he continues, "and we have a stunning cast. I love to see the process. I get incredibly impatient with how slow it is sometimes. I just get intolerably impatient. It's like, "For God sake's, get it,' or, "You've got it — why do we have to go so slow? Surely they know what they're doing by now.' But no, that's not the process. Sometimes I love the process, and sometimes I get so impatient with it.

Marshall Mason and  Lanford Wilson: "They changed the face of American theater," says actress Suzanne Regan.
Jennifer Silverberg
Marshall Mason and Lanford Wilson: "They changed the face of American theater," says actress Suzanne Regan.

"But you keep learning. You keep saying, "You know what? You don't need that word or that word,' or, "You need an "and" in there, or something.' I feel I have to be there, and I keep learning about the work through their work.

"Also, I can go to Marshall and say, "That's not it,'" he says under his breath with a note of distress. "But that doesn't happen very often."

Wilson drew partly from personal history in creating Book of Days. "Why struggle when something is right at hand?" he asks. "My stepfather in Ozark had Earl's job — was the dairy inspector for a cheese plant. I know the cheese business. I'm a pretty decent cook. I've been reading about artisan cheeses — it was all right handy. I've been in more milking parlors than I could possibly count because I used to go around with him when I was 15, 16."

Wilson is one of the very few male American playwrights who create fully faceted women's roles. Again, he refers to his experience growing up as inspiration: "I really like writing women." Most playwrights, he says, "are terrified of them." Growing up, he developed an appreciation of women and their particular language: "The stepfather was never around. The father left early. The early years were really with my grandmother and mother back and forth, and, when Mother remarried, the two stepsisters. They'd have their girls over and talk all night, and I would hang out. When you hear girl talk, really, it is astonishing."

The night before, over beer and pasta, several of the younger members of the cast spoke disconsolately about the future of American theater. Wilson has heard "the death of theater" proclaimed more than once during his career. "When someone as brilliant as Tony Kushner (author of Angels in America) is on the scene, you can't despair. Just go with him. Someone said to me, "Will you be influenced by Tony Kushner's work?' I said, "Well, if I'm not, I'm pretty damn dead, aren't I?' What do we learn from that? Well, (a) tell a story. You can forget that. You really can. Tell a story."

The reason Wilson becomes discouraged is the status of American criticism. "The only negative thing about theater is the way it's received. My despair is for American criticism and the lack of support and the negative attitude. Marshall wrote theater criticism for a paper in Arizona for a couple years, and he was actively encouraged to be negative and hateful by the editors.

"We're going to Hartford, and this production will be reviewed by the New York critics — some of them, anyway — and I just hold my head in despair at what they're going to say. And maybe the production will be no damn good and they'll be right. We won't know what we've got until we've got it. We've sure got a talented cast."

Wilson appears to take the possibilities of failure, and a skewering from the New York critics, without much serious concern. "It troubles me only financially. If they like it, it comes to Broadway and I make some money. If they don't, it won't and I won't. But whether they get it or not — it's almost amusing how badly they missed Redwood Curtain. Not Frank Rich, because I told him. He said, "What's this one about?' I said, "It's the history of America since Vietnam disguised as a three-character fable.' And that's what he reviewed. He knew what it was. The other critics didn't have a clue. They didn't have any entrance into it. I guess I hadn't provided one, but I thought it was perfectly simple."

Wilson's work began in a highly charged political era, and he finds it incomprehensible that the politics of his recent work is ignored in an apolitical time. "The New York critics are so pleased with the British and Irish plays because they're political, they say; even if it's about family, it's really about politics. But they can't see that in the American plays. Idiots! But they don't see it in American plays.

"That's all we're writing about. We're writing about the politics of America. The critics don't see it. It just goes right over their heads. They have to have the English critics tell them that the English plays are really political — even if it's a two-character love story, it's really about England and Scotland. Oh, bullshit! But they can't see it in their own. It's annoying."

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