Lanford Eugene Wilson, a model of the playwrights of the generation bred and nurtured in the fertile Off-Off-Broadway lofts and churches of the 1960’s, may be the most prolific American writer for the stage since Eugene O’Neill. His Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly takes him about halfway through his lifelong chronicling of the fictitious Talley family and its richly variegated American environment.
Wilson was affected by the early divorce of his parents. After spending his childhood with his mother and stepfather in Springfield and Ozark, Missouri, he moved to San Diego, where his reacquaintance with his father (after thirteen years), however imperfect, served as the basis for his examination of his life through drama in the creative years that followed, culminating in the anguished, autobiographical Lemon Sky. Gradually working his way eastward, Wilson found himself in New York at the moment of the birth of Off-Off-Broadway theater, which welcomed his idiosyncratic dramatic voice.
Three New York theaters were integral to Wilson’s growth as an artist and person during those formative years. The Caffé Cino, operated with great daring and foresight by Joe Cino, staged Wilson’s first effort, So Long at the Fair, and some other one-act plays, including This Is the Rill Speaking, Wandering, and The Madness of Lady Bright, which won an Obie for its star, Neil Flanagan. Ellen Stewart’s equally daring and innovative La Mama Experimental Theatre Club staged some of Wilson’s longer works; Balm in Gilead and The Rimers of Eldritch demonstrate Wilson’s multicharacter scene study approach to depicting whole slices of American culture in decay, a layering technique refined in subsequent work such as The Hot l Baltimore.
The third theater to influence Wilson’s work was the Circle Repertory Company, which he cofounded in 1969 with Tanya Berezin, Rob Thierkield, and Marshall Mason, who had directed Wilson’s play The Sand Castle at Café La Mama in 1965. This relationship continued: As playwright in residence at the Circle Repertory, Wilson created, developed, and directed more than a dozen plays, many of which moved...
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