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An Appreciation: Connecting with Lanford Wilson's characters

The late playwright enriched the American theater and changed one critic's life in the process.

March 26, 2011|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Lanford Wilson makes last-minute script changes on a play in 1979.
Lanford Wilson makes last-minute script changes on a play in 1979. (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

The two playwrights most often invoked to describe Lanford Wilson's style are Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams.

From Chekhov, Wilson learned the compositional possibilities of ensemble pieces and the way the inner life is thrown into relief when the outer life slows down. From Williams, Wilson learned the power of the poetry of longing and the importance of fleshing out a world on stage. No American dramatist has been able to match Williams' gift for lyrical realism, but Wilson, hailing from Lebanon, Mo., rather than the Deep South, came closest.

How strange to write of him in the past tense. That Wilson was 73 when he died this week came as a slight shock to me — his plays, no matter when they were written, are that of a contemplative young man.

Of course I'm aware of Wilson's historical place in the off-off-Broadway theater movement of the 1960s. In fact, if I were to characterize his artistry succinctly, I'd say his dramatic craft was influenced by Chekhov and Williams, but his soul was formed in Greenwich Village's pocket stages. Tellingly, even when Wilson's work gained acceptance on Broadway, his sensibility was still too oblique to be considered mainstream. The "alternative" theater is where he belonged, and our dramatic literature is the richer for it.

Wilson first came into my consciousness in 1975 with the TV series "Hot L Baltimore" — the short-lived and controversial sitcom produced by Norman Lear and based on Wilson's long-running off-Broadway play about a cast of eccentrics living in a dilapidated residential hotel with their half-hidden secrets. An outcast air hovered over them. They were shunned, but they kept on living. They survived in the shadows, consoling themselves with wit and exploiting the freedom of their often painful nonconformity.

I was only 10 when the series premiered, too young to have shameful secrets of my own, though I'm not sure I realized that at the time. These characters spoke to me from some distant land and gave me faith that life could be dealt with even when it left you in the lurch. That new circles can be formed when old ones give you up. That being ostracized didn't have to mean the loss of dignity. And that the best protection for one's sanity was a to-hell-with-it humor.

Why would a 10-year-old need such assurance? Perhaps I was intuiting my future as a theater critic. More likely I was responding to unconscious worries and truths about what I would one day call "the human situation." Man is, for better or worse, a social animal, helplessly interconnected, though vulnerable to being cut off. Wilson was drawn to dramatize the more paradoxical aspects of this condition, the way we retreat into loneliness when wounded yet can only find healing in another's arms.

When "Burn This" appeared on Broadway in 1987, I was 22 and still trying to figure out my career path. The excitement generated by the play in New York — intensified by the snake-like bravado of John Malkovich and the sensitivity of Joan Allen under the keen direction of Wilson's closest collaborator, Marshall W. Mason — helped me decide. I wasn't a theater major, but I'd go back to school and become one.

My first impulse was to try to write plays like Wilson's. (There was a time in this country when anyone with a theatrical inclination was trying to write like Wilson.) But of more lasting meaning, "Burn This" was a call to wake up and do something with whatever abilities nature had been kind enough to bestow. Like the characters in this tense, brooding drama, I knew how easy it would be to sulk and squander time, to replay the past and void out the future.

Chekhov is prized for never judging his characters. He does, however, gently admonish them that they can live better. Wilson proceeded similarly with his tribe. His protagonists are typically stalled figures, and the plays they're in conspire to jolt them out of their torpor — or at the very least get them to register what's in front of them before it's gone for good.

Kenneth, the disabled gay Vietnam veteran from "Fifth of July," lives surrounded by a garden tended by his lover, but he's lost sight of its beauty. It will take the near loss of his house for him to catch a glimpse of its defiant reality. Matt and Sally from the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Talley's Folly" are made for each other, but will Sally allow herself to discover the miracle?

My affection for Wilson's plays hasn't waned in recent years, but my critical sense has heightened. Their predicaments often appeal to me more than their resolutions. Or maybe it's simply that I'm fonder of the characters than I am of the desultory plots. What hasn't changed is my admiration for the roomy universes he conjures. Even in less heralded later works such as "Sympathetic Magic" and "Book of Days," the dimensions are as generous as the observant spirit behind them.

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