Lanford Wilson, 1937-2011: He made it to Broadway but never shed his Missouri roots

The first time I met Lanford Wilson, in 1973, he was 36 years old but looked a decade younger. Already a luminary in New York's off-off-Broadway theater movement, he had just won the Obie and Drama Critics' awards for the off-Broadway production of The Hot l Baltimore, his first commercial success (which would run for more than two years). I asked him why Baltimore was so much more successful than his earlier plays. Perhaps, Wilson explained, because he wrote it for no other reason than to provide work for actors. The play had no overriding theme, no major statement to make. "I had a big note to myself," Wilson said, "that read, 'Please love this time. Let's don't talk to the audience.'"

At initial meeting Wilson's conversation leapt from exclamation point to exclamation point. "I am in love with Union Station," the native Missourian enthused. (He was born and reared in Lebanon, near the Lake of the Ozarks.) "It's incredible! It's one of the last great train stations. If they tear that place down, St. Louis is not worth its salt. The entire country watches these signposts. We can't, can't, can't lose that place!" He also talked about the tentacles of his family roots. "The seasons drive me out of my mind," he exclaimed. "People want fresh strawberries in the middle of winter and I say, 'No!' It's such great fun to have seasons. And that all started back in Missouri."

The last time I saw Wilson, in 2001, he was 64 years old but looked a decade older. A seedy shell of his former self, Wilson was now a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose moment in the sun had passed. At dinner he complained about the Broadway failure of Redwood Curtain, which had eked out a 40-performance run in 1993. (It was his final original Broadway play.) "The only critic who understands Redwood Curtain," Wilson groused, "was Frank Rich at the New York Times. And the only reason he understood it is because I ran into him on the street two weeks before it opened and explained to him what it was about." Wilson was condemning himself with his own words.

After his death last month at age 73, obituaries recalled Wilson's stage successes like The Hot l Baltimore and the Pulitzer-winning Talley's Folly. But several pundits also noted that — unlike the plays of Tennessee Williams — Wilson's scripts had not been embraced by Hollywood. What these sages failed to understand is that Wilson avoided Tinseltown. He had a general contempt for movie adaptations of plays. "The movie of The Glass Menagerie was a piece of trash," he claimed, "but no one thinks about it. The movie of The Night of the Iguana I hated desperately, but the play is still this magnificent work of art."

Curiously, Wilson's one original screenplay — the all-but-forgotten 1974 TV movie The Migrants — is based on a story by Tennessee Williams. "This is when I bought a house out in Sag Harbor [on Long Island, New York]," Wilson recalled. "I thought to myself: I could finish the whole restoration of that house with the money I get from this one script. A big $15,000. Working along with Tennessee Williams, I thought we might actually get something worthwhile. I thought: I'd hate to see anyone else handle that.

"It was strange working with Tennessee Williams. He finds it difficult to talk to people, and I found it difficult to talk to him. After we got past that, it was a wonderful experience. We heard that the migrant workers were all winos, so one day we took a big jug of wine and went to meet them. Tennessee and I got bombed out of our minds. They didn't have a drink."

An amusing story. Yet somewhere along the way, the humor seemed to leave Wilson's writing. He also seemed to forget his own advice, and his plays resumed talking to the audience in unhelpful ways. But those original 1970s stagings of The Hot l Baltimore, Fifth of July and Talley's Folly — seamless collaborations between playwright, director and actors — are historic; the memories remain indelible. Now that Wilson is gone, it's almost nostalgic to recall that there was once a vigorous, uncompromising playwright — from Missouri, no less — who was not seduced by film.

 
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