Lanford Wilson died this week. He was a founder and pioneer of many aspects of late 20th-century American theatre, and helped create numerous theatre companies, and careers, in the process.
One of Steppenwolf’s early big successes was his Balm in Gilead, a production which inspired at least one acting teacher to use that script as the basis for a character development project through improvisation for several generations of students. It was in that class and through Wilson’s characters where we were challenged, where we stretched and where we sometimes failed only to be able to learn. I still use the lessons from that semester and that project in my work today. In Balm in Gilead, the characters were all flawed, desperate, deeply written and hungry. I suppose it may have been those similar characteristics in young actors that helped us all connect.
The first time I ever saw an original cast of a major play by a major playwright as it worked its way to Broadway was Wilson’s Burn This. It made a brief two week (and sold out) Chicago run on its way from LA to New York. We knew it was an opportunity to see something great, and the cast alone was worth what it took to get the tickets and make the trip home to see it. (I was away at school at the time.) Later, when it hit Broadway, it would earn a few Tony and Drama Desk awards and nominations. (I still think Malkovich was sadly overlooked for the Tony. His performance was mesmerizing. Joan Allen, who did win a Tony, absolutely deserved that award.)
The beauty and perfection with which Wilson wrote those characters was of a different hue than his Balm characters, but they were still those emotionally deep, charged characters looking to find a way to fill the void and longing in their lives.
I guess that’s how I think of his plays and his characters: flawed, hopeful and seeking. They’re human. They’re real. They’re people with whom we can connect and in whom we can find ourselves.
There will never be another new Lanford Wilson play, and for that the world feels a little more lonely.