Sunday, May 06, 2001

A play-by-play with Lanford Wilson

Renowned playwright talks about his works highlighted in a five-theater festival

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        America's best playwrights are poets of place.

        Tennessee Williams is inextricably tied to the South; Eugene O'Neill is anchored to New England; August Wilson finds his places in the decades that mark the African-American experience in the 20th century. Edward Albee is at home in the small rooms his characters inhabit as well as the dark corners of their minds.

        Lanford Wilson is a poet of many places and, very often, lost souls.

        He writes about New York artists and addicts. He finds his way to a remote mission in New Mexico to consider nuclear annihilation. He sees Vietnam veterans abandoned to a forest of Redwoods.

        He also writes about America's heartland. Often.

        Over the next few weeks, five Cincinnati theaters are exploring the prolific and compassionate Mr. Wilson's American landscape of loss and hope. They will sample work from his 18 full-length plays and more than 20 one-acts.

   Talley's Folly
    When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through June 1
    Where: Playhouse in the Park Marx Theatre, Eden Park
    Tickets: $29-$41. 421-3888

   A Sense of Place
    When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through May 20.
    Where: Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine
    Tickets: $25, $22 students and senior citizens, 421-3555

   Redwood Curtain
    When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday through May 12
    Where: Know Theatre Tribe, Gabriel's Corner, Sycamore at Liberty, Over-the-Rhine
    Tickets: $10. (513) 871-1429

   One-acts: A Betrothal, The Madness of Lady Bright, The Moonshot Tape, Abstinence
    When: 8 p.m. May 11, 12, 17-19 and 2 p.m. May 13. 8 p.m. May 10 is a pay-what-you-can open dress rehearsal.
    Where: Ovation Theatre Company, Aronoff Center for the Arts Fifth Third Bank Theater
    Tickets: $15, $10 students and seniors. (513) 241-7469
    Read the review: in Tempo on May 15.

   Burn This
    When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday May 24-June 2
    Where: IF Theatre Collaborative, University YMCA, 270 Calhoun St.
    Tickets: $15. 961-7434
    Read the review: In Tempo on May 30.
    Discount: Receive $2 off a ticket at any of the theaters by presenting a ticket stub from another Lanford Wilson production at the box office. Attend all five productions, and receive a free ticket to the ETC production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Mail ticket stubs to the League of Cincinnati Theatres, co/ Ensemble Theatre, 1127 Vine St., Cincinnati 45210.
    Read more online: A complete list of Lanford Wilson plays and more about the playwright and other playwrights can be found at
        “I'm not very good at analyzing myself or my work,” Mr. Wilson protested amiably by phone recently from his Sag Harbor, N.Y., home. He had just come in from his rose garden and spends the entire interview pacing around his living room. “That's a good thing. I don't get enough exercise.”

        He was born in Lebanon, Mo., in 1937, and the biblically named town is the setting for many of his plays, including Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley's Folly.

        Beginning with this theatrical valentine, which is getting a 20th anniversary production at Playhouse in the Park (with original director Marshall Mason), we conducted a play-by-play Q&A with the playwright about his life and career.

        He is, not surprisingly, a terrific teller of stories about a life in the theater and how his plays came to be.        

"Talley's Folly'

        It's the evening of Independence Day 1944. Brash, funny fortysomething bachelor Matt Friedman uses the occasion to make one last, no-holds-barred plea to spinster Sally Talley to leave her rigid, anti-Semitic WASP family and marry him.

        An unabashed romance that isn't all sweetness and light, the play runs in real time as the moon rises over the Talley boathouse. Geoffrey Cantor and Kelly McAndrew play Matt and Sally.

        Most of the original Broadway creative team has reunited for the Playhouse production, including Tony-nominated set designer John Lee Beatty and lighting designer Dennis Parichy.

        Question: Do you think coming from the heart of the heartland makes a difference in who you are and what you write?

        Answer: I don't think so. What I really am thankful for is that I was born in the country — I was on an Ozark farm milking cows — then grew up in a midsized city.

        I worked my way through high school at a restaurant in St. Louis and learned all sorts of things. The maitre d' made me eat a Greek olive everyday until I wouldn't spit it out.

        Then I went to California and worked building airplanes, then to Chicago (where he graduated from the University of Chicago), then New York.

        It was a great apprenticeship. At least I know where butter comes from.

        Q: Talley's Folly is a sort of prequel to Fifth of July, in which we meet the Talley clan in the Vietnam era. How did you start thinking about what would have been an oddball courtship between Sally and Matt?

        A: When I started Talley's Folly, I was remembering “duck and cover” and diving under the desks in school (during the Cold War). I was thinking about writing a play in the same house for every war, going backward, but it didn't happen.

        Q: You and Marshall Mason have one of the longest collaborations in theater. He was directing your work even before you were among the co-founders of Circle Repertory in 1969. What are the benefits of such a long-term artistic partnership?

A: If you can find someone who understands your work and can stage a play — !

        When Marshall stumbled across my work in Greenwich Village, our educations were so different. I had practically none. I was going to be a graphic artist. I had never read a play by Shakespeare.

        I'd written Balm in Gilead (his first full-length play), it was this massive piece, 56 characters, simultaneous scenes. I invited him to my apartment to read it. When he finished, he said “You're going to need a really good director.” Then he left.

        A few weeks later a friend of mine bumped into him and asked, “Why don't you like Lanford's play?” Marshall said he loved it. I hadn't realized that when he said I needed a really good director he was talking about himself. We talked about it again. He spent four hours talking about a two-hour play.

        Q: How did Lanford Wilson artist become Lanford Wilson playwright?

        A: I was always drawing things. I'd look at stuff and listen, and I also wrote things down. I still have a matchbook cover where I'd written “We are in deep yogurt.” I still haven't used that.

        There's another one, said to me by Dr. Paul Cranefield, a real foodie. After going on and on about poi, he finished by saying, “Really authentic Hawaiian poi is not fit to eat.” I've tried putting that in three different plays.

        Anyway, I was apprenticing at an advertising agency and writing stories and sending them out and not getting anywhere. I had been in two plays in high school, and I thought of a story that was more like a play.

        I started writing it on huge draft paper, 2 feet by 2 feet. When I got to the bottom of the page, I knew. I'm a playwright.

"A Sense of Place'

        A Sense of Place was written as a commission for a local theater in Sag Harbor, where Mr. Wilson has lived since 1970. The subtitle is inspired by a famous piece of graffiti on a local railroad overpass. “Virgil is the Frog Boy” was painted there for years, then painted over. A few years later, “Virgil is still the Frog Boy” appeared.

        Mr. Wilson loved it. “It gives everyone a sense of hope.”

        The play is about a group of disparate (and very good-looking) twentysomethings sharing a summer beach house on the estate of the rich kid's parents.

        The Ensemble Theatre production features Mike DiSalvo as the scion and host; Brian Kash as a computer nerd who suddenly has millions of dollars; Sunshine Cappelletti as a dancer wannabe; Sara Smith as a fast-tracking entrepreneur and Cliff Jenkins as a local carpenter.

        Q: How did you come to call a play A Sense of Place when all your plays are about a sense of place?

        A: I was going to call it Virgil the Frog Boy, but a lot of theaters told me it sounded like a children's play.

        For me, a sense of place is important — if I don't know where we are, I can't write it.

        Q: How did A Sense of Place come about?

        A: I had a commission to do a play, and I had been working on this midlife crisis thing. I had to visit Marshall in Arizona where he was teaching, and I was taking the train because I don't like planes. I had time to think. About the time I got to Denver I thought, why do I want to write about these old fogeys?

        It's summer. I want to see attractive young people taking their clothes off — not all their clothes. I got off the train, bought a yellow tablet and wrote the first phone conversation. (Between the computer nerd and his mother.)

        Q: In the '60s when you were writing about characters the age of the ones in A Sense of Place, you were their age. Thirty-five years later, have they changed?

        A: Just the trappings, maybe a slide rule is replaced by a computer. Maybe a little change in the ways we're screwed up.

"Redwood Curtain'        

        Know Theatre Tribe presents the regional premiere of a drama about a teen-age Vietnamese-American girl, a piano prodigy, who goes into California's Redwood forest in search of her Vietnam vet father, her heritage and her identity.

        School for Creative and Performing Arts student Jennifer Sese is featured with John Goodnow and Sara Maxey.

        Q: Like Fifth of July, this play is about outcomes of Vietnam. It's about Vietnam vets who retreat into the North California forest because they can't deal with re-entering society ...

        A: This play just slapped me in the face.

        I was spending five weeks doing a teaching residency on a Northern California campus, and one of the students was local. I asked him, “What are all these bums with dogs? We have bag ladies in New York, but what's this about?”

        He said, “These are Vietnam vets. There are villages back there (in the forest). They call this place the Redwood Curtain.”

        It was always in the local paper. Redwood Curtain was delivered to me every morning, with my coffee.

The one acts

        Ovation presents a quartet of short plays.

        The Madness of Lady Bright (1963) is, in Mr. Wilson's words, “about a screaming queen going stark raving mad” as an aging gay man muses over his life and loves.

        A Betrothal (1984) is an unlikely romance that blossoms between two middle-aged people at a flower show.

        The Moonshot Tape (1990) puts a famous short-story writer on the spot with an interview by a hometown high school student.

        Abstinence (1986) is a comedy inspired by Mr. Wilson's friends in Alcoholics Anonymous.

        Q: You've written more one-acts than almost any other contemporary writer.

        A: That was because of Caffe Cino (an off-off Broadway coffeehouse where the playwright got his start). It was so uncomfortable, you couldn't sit for more than 35 or 40 minutes.

        But I love the form. If you don't like it, it's going to be over with. If it sucks, it only sucks for 10 minutes.

"Burn This'

        One of Mr. Wilson's best works starts with an off-stage death. A dancer mourns the death of her gay collaborator in a freak accident. Suddenly his menacing brother bursts into her ordinary life, upsetting the balance with her stuffy boyfriend and caustic gay roommate.

        Q: You've often written roles to fit the actors in the Circle Rep company. Matt Friedman in Talley's Folly was fashioned for Judd Hirsch. You wrote your wild man Pale for John Malkovich .

        A: I was determined to make it the opposite of Talley's Folly, an anti-romance.

        I wanted to say things you don't say, and I wrote “Burn This” at the top of every page. I hadn't decided what to call it. Marshall (Mason) suggested the title.

        Q: So many of your plays are musical. Burn This plays like a jazz concerto. Redwood Curtain is about a piano prodigy. At the beginning of Talley's Folly, Matt tells the audience that it plays in waltz time. Why have you made music such an integral part of your writing?

        A: I grew up in a really small school in a really small town. I didn't and don't play an instrument, although I did sing in my school's chorus.

        When I was going to Southwest Missouri State in Springfield, I was a soda jerk in the student center for an entire summer term, and the counter guy played classical music all the time. We'd eat ice cream, and I'd get a music appreciation course.

        I was about 20, and I was just starting to write. I read a description of a play by Tennessee Williams that said he “takes common American speech and turns it into music.” I thought, “What a cool thing to do.” Dialogue should be logical, but it doesn't have to be banal.

        Q: You've just been named (off-Broadway) Signature Theatre's showcase playwright for 2002-2003.

        A: I hope they're planning to include the New York premiere of Book of Days (a mystery with a sort of Our Town feel, again set in Missouri.)

        Q: You've just picked up a lifetime achievement award.

A: (A definite groan followed by a long sigh. The Midwestern twang comes to the fore.) It was the fifth one this year, and I just got another phone call, this one was congratulating me on getting an award from the Lucille Lortel Foundation.

        As Lady Bright says, it makes me feel O-L-D.

        Q: Working on anything now?

        A: I'm walking around in a funk because I don't have anything to say and I don't have an idea — which is what always happens before I have an idea.


- A play-by-play with Lanford Wilson
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