The American playwright Lanford Wilson, who has died from pneumonia, aged 73, made his name in the Off-Off-Broadway theatre scene in New York and helped to shape the course of contemporary theatre from the mid-1960s onwards. Lance – as he was known by friends and colleagues – enjoyed a run of Tony-nominated plays in the 1980s, including Talley’s Folly, the story of a Jewish man who proposes to a Protestant woman, which won him the Pulitzer prize for drama in 1980. The Talley trilogy was his most ambitious undertaking and also included Talley and Son and Fifth of July, the latter exploring an America irrevocably tainted by the Vietnam war.
Lance was born in Lebanon, Missouri, which he used as the setting for many of his plays, including Talley’s Folly. He explored his troubled home life in the “purely autobiographical” play Lemon Sky, which was filmed in 1988 with Kevin Bacon in the lead role. The plot deals with a young gay man’s attempted reconciliation with his father, who refuses to accept his son’s sexuality.
Lance’s creative passion, he said, was fuelled by a sense of failure at not graduating, first from San Diego State University and then from Chicago University. In an interview with a fellow playwright, Craig Lucas, he revealed that when he came to New York in the early 1960s, he “started reading like a maniac”. Shortly after Lance’s arrival, the playwright William Hoffman led him to the legendary Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village where the proprietor Joe Cino had begun mounting short plays, with the dialogue just audible over the steaming espresso machine.
Lance began hanging out, studying the plays and making friends with a growing number of writers, directors and actors, all disillusioned by the restrictive uptown theatre world and its cabals. He appreciated the camaraderie of people who were prepared to help each other rather than operate as rivals. He became a regular at nascent venues such as the Judson Church and Cafe LaMaMa, but his friends recall his all-purpose greeting, “What’s on at the Cino?”, indicating where he felt most at home.
Such welcome approbation sanctioned Lance to write characters who freely explored the conflict of their sexuality and family feelings. He and the actor Michael Warren Powell began a long-term personal and professional relationship that resulted in the co-founding, in 1969, of the Circle Repertory theatre with Rob Thirkield, Tanya Berezin and Marshall Mason. Mason became the theatre’s director in residence and later passed on the artistic administration to Berezin and then others before the theatre closed its doors in 1996.
We had met before, but I first worked with Lance on the premiere of his play The Rimers of Eldritch, at LaMaMa in 1966. In the play, which won him his first Drama Desk award, I played boy-crazy Patsy Johnson opposite her inappropriate crush, played by Frederic Forrest. What I remember most was Lance’s respect for the contribution of each actor and his determination to help us squeeze the most from every line. Somehow, he accomplished that without ever telling us what to do. It was a process of trust.
Mason and Lance worked together on more than 50 productions over 35 years. Lance acknowledged him as “the director who has brought almost all my plays to life on stage. No one gets better performances from actors than he does.”
Such productions provided opportunities for rising actors and directors including Kathy Bates, William Hurt, Judd Hirsch, Laurence Fishburne and John Malkovich. Malkovich later starred with Juliet Stevenson in one of the highest-profile UK productions of Lance’s work, Burn This, which opened at the Hampstead theatre in London in 1990 and transferred to the West End. Last year, Lance’s play Serenading Louie was revived at the Donmar Warehouse in London.
Among the many awards he received was the New York Innovative Theatre award for artistic achievement, presented to him last year in recognition of “his brave and unique works that helped to establish the Off-Off-Broadway community”. Always modest and self-effacing, he was never wholly comfortable with such attention. He used to describe his writing process as “just knitting together my scraps of paper”.
He is survived by his half-brothers, Jim and John, and his stepsister, Judy.
Michael Billington writes: It is sadly ironic that Lanford Wilson has died at the very moment we are marking the centenary of Tennessee Williams’s birth. Wilson was very much in the Williams tradition. His work is characterised by a similar poetic naturalism. Even his major themes – the conflict between the traditional past and the insidious present, between surrogate families and a life of lonely isolation – carry echoes of the master. And it is no accident that one of Wilson’s early works was an adaptation of Williams’s Summer and Smoke.
I first became aware of Wilson’s work in the mid-70s. I particularly remember a production of The Hot l Baltimore, which was then in its second year at the Circle in the Square theatre in New York. Set in a flaking hotel doomed for demolition (the title refers to its damaged sign), the play was an unashamed lament for a disappearing America. As the hotel staff went about their business, they were helped and hindered by a girl with a passion for old trains, old people and even old hotels with faulty elevator systems. The play was a touch folksy, but it expressed Wilson’s prime concerns.
The Talley trilogy again used buildings as a symbol of the emotional conflict between past and present. I chiefly remember Fifth of July, partly because it contained a fine performance by William Hurt and partly because it offered a poignant evocation of America’s recent past. The action revolved around the sale of the family house. But the characters I recall are Ken (Hurt), whose legs had been paralysed in the Vietnam war, and his gay lover: their tenderness again reminded me of Williams.
Of Wilson’s later work, Burn This made the most impact. It dealt with three people, all afraid of passion, whose lives are disrupted by the death of a friend and the appearance of his brother, who is as volatile as they are repressed. It confirmed that Wilson was a talented craftsman of dialogue and very good at dramatising a fear of commitment.
• Lanford Eugene Wilson, playwright, born 13 April 1937; died 24 March 2011
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