Wilson’s plays often are characterized by themes derived from experiences in two contrasting worlds: the urban and the rural. In his plays with urban settings, characters live on the edge of existence and are trapped in decaying surroundings. The Madness of Lady Bright (pr. 1964, pb. 1967) portrays a woman’s descent into madness. Balm in Gilead (pr., pb. 1965) portrays a ragged group of the dispossessed who spend time in a small inner-city café. The award-winning The Hot l Baltimore (pr., pb. 1973) presents a similar collection of individuals, who live in a decaying hotel near a railroad station.
When Wilson utilizes rural settings, his characters are often so bound up in their hypocritical, guilt-ridden, dysfunctional family relationships that they are blind to the potential beauty and simplicity of the world around them. The Rimers of Eldritch (pr. 1966, pb. 1967) examines a town’s response to a dark secret, and The Mound Builders (pr. 1975, pb. 1976) exposes conflicts between those who would preserve the past and those who would destroy it for the sake of blindly following the god of development. These plays reflect Wilson’s ambivalence toward his own Midwestern roots.
Wilson often resolves these tensions by finding hope in the possibilities of life-sustaining human relationships. The relationship between Matt and Sally in Talley’s Folly exemplifies this hope. This play, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, represents Wilson’s ongoing interest in rural Midwestern settings, particularly those of his native Missouri. It is one of three plays that re-creates the lives of the Talley family from Lebanon, Missouri. The Talley family appears initially in 5th of July (pr., pb. 1978), which portrays events that take place in 1977. In this play Wilson explores themes that also reverberate in Talley’s Folly: betrayal by members of a family, the narrow-minded and repressive aspects of some Midwestern values, the redeeming quality of human relationships, the life-affirming virtues associated with honesty and hard work, and the special, creative qualities of one family member that balance the iniquities of other family members.
Talley and Son (pr. 1985) adds to the story of the Talley family by focusing on the events that occur while Matt and Sally are discussing their future on that July 4 evening in Talley’s Folly. The play explores the moral and psychological decline of the Talley family, whose actions are characterized again by betrayal, revenge, and gross materialism.
Wilson’s main characters often are misfits or free thinkers, who do not share the narrow-minded values of those in power. Most important, they are individuals. They know what they believe in, and they act on their beliefs. His plays from the late twentieth century include Eukiah (pr., pb. 1992), Redwood Curtain (pr. 1992, pb. 1993), Day (pr., pb. 1996), A Sense of Place: Or, Virgil Is Still the Frogboy (pr. 1997, pb. 1999), Book of Days (pr. 1998, pb. 2000) and Rain Dance (pr. 2000).