As with many of the artists I have greatly admired, I never met this man Lanford Wilson. We never conversed and I never came up with the questions I would have asked if I had bumped into him on the street somewhere. I never told him the three things I learned from very different psychic radius of him and his work and I doubt I would have had the coherence, in his presence, to speak them aloud. And now he is dead and I write those three things here.
One (1): It's 1995, and the Buffalo Theatre Ensemble is producing the play Balm in Gilead, which is a title I lack the religious studies acumen to understand and which does not alert me in the slightest to its New York City greasy-spoon setting, overrun with vice detail regulars and hard-luck entrepreneurs, all of whom are so wrapped up in their own little stories that they wreck the convenient observational structure of a good old-fashioned play, characters who talk all at once because every minute and every molecule of oxygen belongs to them and them alone. Viewing Gilead was a test of mettle for me: I could have deeply disliked what I saw or I could have understood what I was being told about humanity, and I was able, thankfully, to steer my brain to the latter. Gilead was, before I'd even heard the maxim, a demonstration that good drama is about the single most important events in its characters' lives...and that even the minor characters, the characters in the background, may be experiencing those important events while you're watching the handsome dope dealer or the tragic, talkative call-girl.
Two (2): It's 1997 and I've been cast as the Judge and the Preacher in a college production of The Rimers of Eldritch. It feels like there are a hundred of us in the room playing seventy-five people, time disjointed, space subjective. The desires and dreams of Wilson's fictional small town echo everywhere, the director seems to vacillate between confidence and terror, we are trees, we are frost, we are murder and prejudice and no more or less human as ourselves than we are as our roles in the play. From the inside of his work, now, I see the limits of linear time and the power of flexible casting. History happens in a straight line but story happens any which way you choose. And when you get right down to it, people are people are people, and one person's imperfections are much like another person's imperfections viewed from the opposite side of the glass.
Three (3): It's post-college and my friend Bryan is working at the Purple Rose Theatre in Michigan as an assistant to Jeff Daniels. He tells us how Wilson, who would often premiere a play up at Purple Rose, would come to opening night wearing a turtleneck sweater and sit in the back row of the theater. As his play would begin, Wilson would pull the turtleneck up over his head and quietly mutter "Oh god. Oh god. Oh god. Oh god. Oh god."
Because that feeling will never go away.
Not even if you spend over four decades writing for the theater.
Not even if you achieve something approaching an actual life in that art.
Not even if you turn out to be Lanford Wilson.
Thank you, sir. Allow me to wish you goodbye without ever having said hello.
Current Music: Devotchka, "How It Ends"