Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lanford Wilson died March 23, 2011, at the age of 73, on the eve the opening night revival of his work Hot l Baltimore at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.
I worked as an actor with Circle Rep in New York from 1981 until it closed up shop in the mid 1990s. Most of my time there was under the guidance and leadership of Marshall Mason, its artistic director. Its home grown star was undoubtedly playwright Lanford Wilson, the fourth of its co-founders, who had worked off/off Broadway with Marshall Mason as his director at LaMama, Caffé Cino and elsewhere during the turbulent 60s when the theatre was evolving from the era of the well-made Broadway play into the freer forms and more radical expressions of the sexual revolution, the rock’n roll and drug times. Mason and Wilson found favor with some short plays off/off Broadway.
Then, in 1964 Wilson handed over Balm in Gilead, his first full length play. It was set in the coffee shop that occupied the first floor of Wilson’s apartment house on the upper west side of Manhattan. He only gave it to Mason for advice, but after reading it, Mason said “You’re going to need a good director”, and by that he meant himself. He was helpful in shaping the play and he put it on at LaMama on January 20, 1965. It was a great success and led to Wilson joining Mason, Tanya Berezin and Rob Thirkield to form Circle Rep (then called Circle Theatre) in 1968.
In their initial home above a store on 83rd Street and Broadway, and later in their permanent home in Sheridan Square, Greenwich Village, they gave us some of the most provocative and invigorating works that off/Broadway had ever known. Wilson alone supplied The Fifth of July, Talley’s Folly (which won the Pulitzer Prize), and Hot_l Baltimore for starters and followed them with other gems including Talley and Son, Burn This, Redwood Curtain, Lemon Sky, The Mound Builders, The Rimers of Eldritch and Angels Fall among many others.
It was this last that allowed me to work with Wilson, and on the sad occasion of his passing this week at the age of 73, I wanted to share some memories I have of that very enriching experience.
Lanford wrote his plays for the actors in the Circle Rep Company. He felt very much a part of the entire operation, and he could be seen each Friday in the audience as plays by other writers were read by and to the company, so that the authors could hear them played by professional actors, to have the opportunity to have input from them, and to judge for themselves what might need trimming, cutting, re-writing.
He was always supportive of other writers, and very willing to take suggestions and criticism from the company when his own plays were read at those Friday readings. Marshall Mason invited me to visit those readings in 1981, and within a few weeks I was one of those cast when something came along for which I was right. I was fortunate in that I was in my mid 40s at the time, and the company was basically a young one, so there were only two or three men my age and older who could play the more mature characters.
In short order, I was cast in a play called The Diviners by Jim Leonard, who was just becoming a playwrignt member of the company. This led to other assignments and within the year I was a full fledged member of the company. So it was that in the summer of 1982, Lanford fulfilled a commission by the Miami Arts Council to supply a play to the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and it emerged as Angels Fall. He tailored each of the six roles to one of six actors in the company; Fritz Weaver, Tanya Berezin, Barnard Hughes, Danton Stone, Brian Tarantino and Nancy Snyder. But Barnard Hughes was tied up all summer in Hollywood filming a tv series in which he starred, and he could not play the lead role of Father William Doherty during the six week tryout tour that began in Florida, continued on to Westport, Connecticut and concluded in Saratoga, New York.
Lanford and Marshall came to me and asked if I would play the role for the summer tryout, knowing that if Barnard’s tv series was not picked up, he would take over the role in the fall in New York, where the play was scheduled to open at the Circle Rep Theatre. If his series continued, then I’d get to play this starring role, my first, in New York. They knew it was a loaded question because I would be the only actor left behind if Barney was available.
Well! What would you have done? I took about 30 seconds to say “You’re asking me to be the first to play a leading character in a new play by Lanford Wilson? You’re telling me it might only be for the six weeks of the pre-New York tour? And I say right back at you: Yes! I will do it! I will be thrilled to do it”. And I was, so I did.
However, I’d never been in the cast of a new Wilson play. In Florida, while I was cramming the enormous role into my head, we opened to promising notices, and nobody seemed to mind that a supporting player was playing a starring role opposite a genuine star like Fritz Weaver and a top featured actress like Tanya Berezin. But Lanford, a Circle Reppie to the core, who was there for every rehearsal and every performance, continued to write, and re-write and re-write again all through the tour. He actually came to me in the intermission of one matinee, with 2 pages of re-writes in which, among other things, he ‘d taken material from the first act, which we’d already played, and asked me to insert it in the second act, where he felt it more logically belonged. I turned purple (fear) and red (rage) at the same time, and managed to have a mini-temper tantrum. “I can’t rehearse in front of an audience! No once can or should do that! What do you take me for? Why must it go in today??? Can’t it wait till I’ve learned it, and rehearsed it at least ONCE?” And Lanford looked surprised, confused, even hurt. “Dear Boy,” he said ( though I was 10 years older than he ): “This is Florida. That’s what we’re here for.” And I took the pages, read them twice, and went on with the new lines, some of which I’d used in Act One. I have no way of being certain, but I don’t think anyone noticed. But Lanford learned what he needed to know.
By the time we got to Westport, I’d fallen for my character, “ Father Bill Doherty.” I was beginning to feel possessive about him. And sure enough, Barney Hughes’ series was not renewed and he was free to take over in New York. But the dear man was so thoughtful he actually said to me: “I’ve never asked an actor to give up a role for me. I feel awful. So please, dear Dick, you can have it. I mean it; it’s yours now and I have no right to it.” Well, after I (inwardly) burst into tears, I of course said “No! I knew about this from the first. And I’ll be out front opening night to cheer you on”. (privately thinking, “if for any reason there’s a problem – I mean like Barney getting a major movie or something wonderful – I knew the lines and would be ready to step in at a moment’s notice”.)
The play went on, was a big hit for Circle Rep, and a Broadway management decided to take it to Broadway, where it moved in 1983. Marshall and Lanford offered me the understudy job, and I’d have grabbed it, but the producer insisted I cover Fritz Weaver’s role as well, one I was not at all suited for, because he didn’t want to pay for two understudies for the two older roles. “Chintzy,” I thought, and sure enough they picked an actor who was right in the middle of the two ages, really right for neither role. It turned out all right, because the Broadway run at the Longacre was only 57 performances and neither Fritz nor Barney ever missed a show. Marshall and Lanford gave me a grand gold pocket watch and chain which I have, and use, to this day.
And believe it or not, later that year, I won the Carbonell Award for playing Bill Doherty in Florida, and that lovely engraved bronze statue is the best looking doorstop I’ve ever seen, a happy reminder of my six weeks learning new lines almost daily, in Angels Fall.
Lanford, I hope all your plays are in constant repertory wherever you’ve landed. For all those vivid characters have you in them; they are indeed your family. And what a lovely bunch of coconuts they, and you, are.