Playwright Lanford Wilson Remembered



By Annette Hinkle

Sag Harbor’s Lanford Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a co-founder of the Circle Repertory Company in New York City, died on Thursday, March 24 in Wayne, N.J. from complications of pneumonia. He was 73 years old.

Wilson, who wrote 17 full length plays and countless one-acts, was born on April 13, 1937 in Lebanon, Mo. and his Pulitzer for drama came for “Talley’s Folly” which premiered on Broadway in 1980. The play was one in a trilogy set in Wilson’s hometown and also included “Talley & Son” and “Fifth of July.” Other plays included “Angels Fall,” “Burn This,” “Redwood Curtain” and “The Hot l Baltimore.”

Wilson’s first full length play, “Balm In Gilead,” premiered Off-Broadway in 1965 not long after he arrived in New York from the Midwest. At the time, Wilson lived over an all-night coffee shop on the Upper West Side and it was there that he heard the stories of young drug addicts, runaways and prostitutes that would become the basis of the play.

“I was there to learn,” said Wilson in an interview with the Express last October. “I went to that café every night, which helped me grow a tough hide. I sat and listened a long while, then became friends with them. You strike up a conversation, then they’re willing to talk.”

As he built his career, Wilson also earned a reputation as a playwright who captured dialogue that spoke to a generation. New York Times theater critic Frank Rich said Wilson was “one of the few artists of our theater who can truly make America sing.”

In 1969, Wilson was named resident playwright of the Circle Repertory Company which he co-founded with director Marshall W. Mason, director Rob Thirkield and actress Tanya Berezin. The company ran until 1996. During Wilson’s memorial service at the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor on Monday, March 28, Marshall Mason spoke of his long association with Wilson and their close friendship.

“After 20 years, Playbill called us the longest collaboration between director and writer in the history of theatre,” said Mason. “Another 20 years followed that.”

“Lanford was driven as a writer – he was celebrated for his beautiful language infused with complex human characters and a remarkable sense of style,” Mason added. “He also was incredibly innovative. He was the first playwright to have simultaneous scenes going on, like a circus. He knew an audience could follow more than one thing.”

Yet despite his success in the New York theater world, Mason noted that Wilson always stayed true to his Midwestern roots.

“Lanford loved tradition, he loved to ride trains and see America,” said Mason. “He was serious about American values — not Sarah Palin values, but real American values.”

But it was Sag Harbor that Wilson came to call home, and for many years, he was a familiar figure on Main Street. Known as a great cook and consummate gardener, Mason recalled that Wilson tended the extensive garden of his Suffolk Street home with care and his efforts were greatly appreciated by all who visited.

Wilson also had a close connection with the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor where  his play “Virgil Is Still The Frogboy” premiered in 1996. In 2002, the theatre presented “Talley’s Folly” and last summer, Bay Street staged “Fifth of July,” the last in the Talley trilogy. In October 2010, Bay Street presented a workshop performance of “Raindogs,” a new musical by Andrew McBean based on “Balm in Gilead.”

When asked how he felt about seeing his play turned into a musical, Wilson responded, “I don’t have to let go of the original. The play is always there.”

“Lanford was a wonderful fixture here in town and we were fortunate and privileged to have been able to collaborate with him over the past 20 years,” said Bay Street’s artistic director Murphy Davis.