The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Angels Fall, a play in two acts, is set inside a mission church on a New Mexico Indian reservation. As the play opens, Niles and Vita Harris have been rerouted at a highway roadblock. They enter the church, trying to escape the heat, and call Dr. Singer. Dr. Singer runs a mental institution, and the Harrises are on their way there to admit Niles. Don Tabaha appears and tersely informs them that the church is closed and that the telephone is for medical emergencies only. Marion Clay and Zappy Zappala then arrive; they were stopped at another roadblock on their way to San Diego for a tennis tournament in which Zappy is competing. Marion once lived in the area with her husband, a recently deceased painter whose works are about to be shown on a national tour, and she knows Don and Father Doherty, the church’s pastor. Don remains unfriendly, however, and leaves just as Father Doherty enters.

Niles and Vita tell the others how they had been turned back at a roadblock because a bridge was out. Doherty explains to them that there is no bridge and that the roads are always passable at this time of year (June)—except when there has been an accident at one of the nuclear facilities nearby. Marion and Zappy say that they heard on their car radio that the roads are closed in all directions because of an explosion at Chin Rock Mine: A cloud of uranium dust has escaped, and one worker has been killed and others injured. The travelers are stranded. A low-flying helicopter is heard, and a voice from its loudspeaker tells everyone to stay indoors.

Niles recounts his last day of teaching art history at his college. While working on an outline for a new book, he made the “tactical error,” as he calls it, of rereading his three published books and realized that he did not believe a word of them. Consequently, he went to his class (driving through the college’s iris bed on the way), told the students that the course was worthless, and tore up his books. Although he was not fired, the governors of the college demanded that he receive professional treatment.

Don enters, and Doherty turns the conversation toward the young man’s imminent departure. Don is an intern at the reservation hospital and intended to stay, but now he has changed his plans. Despite the many medical problems among the Native American population, and despite Doherty’s importuning, he is taking a...

(The entire section is 982 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A traditional dramatic device employed in Angels Fall is the locked room. Wilson develops this device by using the unseen but amplified voices from the helicopters commanding everyone to stay within the confines of the sanctuary. As in Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest (pr., pb. 1935) or Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis-clos (pr. 1944; No Exit, 1946), for example, Angels Fall strands its characters and so forces them to communicate with one another, when otherwise they would never have done so. This dramatic device enables the characters, through their markedly different perspectives and experiences, to solve one another’s problems.

While characters have ample reasons to mourn and even to engage in self-pity, humor keeps the plot from devolving into maudlin pathos. For example, Father Doherty remarks on the dangers of nuclear contamination but also on the frivolity of his concern about becoming sterile. Zappy, besides providing dramatic foreshadowing of the others’ salvation, serves through actions and speech as comic relief, easing the tension generated by circumstances and the other characters’ interchanges.

Wilson makes extended use of religious imagery. The action takes place in a church, and the protagonist’s “salvation” is brought about by a priest. Further, as if to validate Niles’s new life, the play ends with a mass being celebrated. The play’s title comes from a poem by...

(The entire section is 514 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Barnett, Gene. Lanford Wilson. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Busby, Mark. Lanford Wilson. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1987.

Dean, Anne. Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.

Herman, William. “Down and Out in Lebanon and New York: Lanford Wilson.” In Understanding Contemporary American Drama. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Jacobi, Martin J. “The Comic Vision of Lanford Wilson.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 21 (Fall, 1988): 119-134.

Tibbetts, John C. “An Interview with Lanford Wilson.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. Spring, 1991.