Lanford Wilson was born on April 13, 1937 in Lebanon, Missouri. At age 11, after his parents divorced and mother remarried, Wilson moved with his mother to Ozark where he developed an appreciation for art and tried his hand at performing in high school plays.
He went on to study at Southwest Missouri State College for one term before moving to California to study art at San Diego State College and reunite with his father, who had relocated to the area after the divorce. While getting along wonderfully with his father’s new wife and his two half-brothers, Wilson’s relationship with his father was strained; his father refused to accept his son’s homosexuality (in 1970 Wilson would write Lemon Sky, a largely autobiographical account of this conflict between father and son).
Wilson spent only a year at San Diego State while simultaneously holding a factory job, riveting planes at Ryan Aircraft Plant, before he again became restless and decided to head to Chicago to visit friends. The visit began in 1957 and would last five years while Wilson worked as a graphic artist and took writing classes at the University of Chicago. It was only when he realized that one of his stories would be better suited to the stage that he shifted to writing dramatic work. As he grew increasingly interested in writing plays, Wilson felt there wasn’t enough of a theatre scene in Chicago to sustain his fledgling career, so he took off for New York City.
While supporting himself with odd jobs in New York, Wilson found a creative home in the Caffe Cino. This Greenwich Village coffeehouse, opened by retired dancer Joe Cino, had rapidly evolved from a place to grab a drink with friends into a theatrical venue where regular patrons were encouraged to explore and experiment with their art.
Not only was Caffe Cino the catalyst for the off-off-Broadway movement, it was also one of the first safe havens for LGBT artists to perform and write about their experiences without being ostracized. In 1964, Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright about an aging drag queen became Cino’s most successful production, receiving more than 200 performances and considerable mainstream attention.
While producing work at Caffe Cino, Wilson met and would form a lifelong collaborative relationship with director Marshall Mason. He and Mason workshopped and eventually produced Wilson’s next critical success, Balm in Gilead at La Mama in January 1965. About the intersecting lives of prostitutes, drug dealers, and junkies in an Upper Broadway diner, Balm in Gilead was the first full-length off-off-Broadway production to be staged, as well as the first off-off-Broadway show to have its script published. While many shows occurring on and off-Broadway were commercial and mainstream, Wilson’s off-off-Broadway production chose to tell a riskier story.
Wilson continued to have work produced around the city, receiving a Drama Desk award for his off-Broadway production of The Rimers of Eldritch in 1967 and making his Broadway debut in 1968 with The Gingham Dog. In July 1969, after the tragic death of Joe Cino and subsequent closing of Caffee Cino, Wilson and Mason joined director Rob Thirkield and actress Tanya Berezin in founding the Circle Repertory Company. Circle Rep would produce a substantial amount of Wilson’s work, often directed by Mason, over the course of the following three decades. Among these productions were The Hot l Baltimore, an award-winning commercial success that transferred off-Broadway and spawned a short-lived television series; The Mound Builders, an ambitious piece that Wilson was deeply proud of; and the “Talley Trilogy:” Fifth of July, Talley’s Folly, and Talley & Son.
For an emerging writer to make such a huge mark on a developing theatre movement and have his plays steadily staged on Broadway—within less than a decade of moving to the New York City—was unprecedented. British arts critic Michael Billington observed that Wilson often explored “the conflict between the traditional past and the insidious present, between surrogate families and a life of lonely isolation.” He leant an ear and gave a voice to characters living on the margins of society when very few other writers were willing to do so, and he did so without judging the people about whom he wrote. Wilson, an incredibly prolific and widely celebrated playwright, passed away on March 24, 2011 from complications of pneumonia at the age of 73. He left behind an impressive body of work and a lasting impact on the American theatre.
Wilson's play, Talley's Folly is playing through May 5 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.
2012-2013 Season, Talley's Folly