Playwright Lanford Wilson, a gentle writer from Missouri who wrote of urban desperation but most revealed his heart through rich and emotional dramas centered on the struggles of small-town Midwestern life, died Thursday at a hospital in Wayne, N.J. He was 73.
Marshall W. Mason, a longtime collaborator at New York’s Circle Repertory Company, announced Wilson’s death from complications of pneumonia.
Many of Wilson’s highly regarded plays probed the lives of lost, urban souls. “Balm in Gilead,” a 1965 drama, was set in a cafe frequented by addicts and prostitutes; “The Hot L Baltimore,” from 1973, took place in a dilapidated hotel; and “Burn This,” a 1987 drama set in New York, followed a group of grieving friends. (A revival production of “Burn This,” directed by Nicholas Martin, is set to open April 3 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.)
Wilson’s characters often were desperate eccentrics, whose fears and needs were invariably drawn with sympathy. But he always seemed the most comfortable and revelatory when writing dramas set within a few hours’ drive of the Ozarks, the region of his birth.
His most successful play overall was surely “Talley’s Folly,” a 1979 drama (part of a three-play “Talley trilogy” that also included “Fifth of July” and “Talley & Son”) that earned Wilson the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980.
Set in rural Missouri in 1944, “Talley’s Folly” was the sweet story of a middle-age romance between Sally Talley and Matt Friedman, both trying to overcome their emotional baggage and find love. The play was both his masterpiece and a tale of simple human communication.
His lesser known but perhaps most personal play is “Book of Days,” which premiered at the small Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Mich., where actor Jeff Daniels is artistic director.
Daniels was an old friend from Circle Rep, and Wilson developed an important late-in-life relationship with the Purple Rose. In that heartfelt 1998 drama, the playwright wrote of a battle for the rural soul of his beloved Ozarks, waged between rural artisans committed to a progressive interpretation of traditional values and what Wilson saw as the fast-rising and insidious influence of the religious right on small-town life.
Lanford Eugene Wilson was born April 13, 1937, in Lebanon, Mo., and was reared by his mother after his parents’ marriage ended. After high school, he moved to San Diego, where his father lived, and briefly attended what is now San Diego State.
He then moved to Chicago, where he studied at the University of Chicago and worked in advertising.
Wilson first emerged as a playwright in 1964 at New York’s Caffe Cino, where the early Wilson drama “The Madness of Lady Bright” was a major hit and a significant milestone in the development of gay-themed drama.
But his most important creative relationship was at Circle Rep, of which he was a founding member in 1969 and where many of his most famous plays, such as “Serenading Louie” (1970) and “The Hot L Baltimore” were produced under Mason’s direction.
“Lanford was a singular voice in the American theater — an important artist, a gentle soul and a good friend,” said Terry Kinney, co-founder of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, which is staging a new revival of “The Hot L Baltimore.” “We will miss him sorely.”