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Lanford Wilson died yesterday at age 73. The Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright worked both on and off Broadway. And he was known for contrast, blending a hard-eyed view of life with elegant lyrical language.
Jeff Lunden offers this appreciation.
JEFF LUNDEN: In Lanford Wilson's 1986 play "Burn This," a choreographer and a writer are talking about their work.
(Soundbite of play, "Burn This")
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) And I think it's all getting a little too personal.
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Good. It's supposed to be. Make it as personal as you can. Believe me, you can't imagine a feeling everyone hasn't had. Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write burn this on the bottom.
LUNDEN: Lanford Wilson's work was always personal, whether he was writing about characters from his native Missouri or the prostitutes and junkies in the greasy spoon across the street from his New York apartment. That coffee shop became the setting for his first major success, in 1965, he told NPR.
Mr. LANFORD WILSON (Playwright): The coffee shop downstairs is the coffee shop in "Balm in Gilead." And I was just amazed by the place. And I just took dictation, page after page after page.
LUNDEN: Wilson said he then showed the play to a young director named Marshall Mason.
Mr. WILSON: He read "Balm in Gilead" and said, you're going to need a good director. And he was talking about himself. And I thought he meant, you know, to save it. And, finally, we got together on it, and he sat down to talk about it, and he told me - for four hours - every single thing that's in that play.
LUNDEN: So the self-effacing playwright and the self-assured director began one of the most successful collaborations in American theater.
Wilson and Mason helped to co-found the Circle Repertory Company off-Broadway in 1969, where they put on a remarkable string of successes, among them "The Hot L Baltimore," "Fifth of July" and "Talley's Folly," which won Wilson the Pulitzer Prize.
New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley says Wilson's plays always have a vitality to them and juicy parts for actors.
Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Theater Critic, New York Times): Lanford Wilson was an interesting combination of 1960s, '70s sort of disenchantment with the state of the nation. And in a couple plays, at least, featured embittered Vietnam veterans.
At the same time, he harked back to the era of more sentimental plays, of portraits of losers on the margins of life.
LUNDEN: Among the actors who made a mark in original productions of Wilson's plays were Judd Hirsch, Swoosie Kurtz, Christopher Reeve and John Malkovich, all of them directed by Marshall Mason. In 2002, Mason described his working process with Lanford Wilson.
Mr. MARSHALL MASON (Theater Director): Sometimes I am in on reading the plays, you know, as he's writing the scenes. Sometimes he'll write a speech and not know where the speech is going to go or who's saying it or anything. He'll just read me the speech and I'll say: Wow, that's wonderful. Who is it? Or, you know, what are they? And he says, I don't know yet.
So he waits for his own imagination to unfold, and I wait patiently with him.
LUNDEN: And often, that took a while, Wilson told NPR.
Mr. WILSON: Sometimes, I'm annoyed at something and start writing and, you know, and then someone says, oh shut up, and I have two points of view. And sometimes, I couldn't tell you where they came from.
LUNDEN: But they always reflected the world around him. As one of the characters in "Burn This" says: Nobody's safe around a writer. Lanford Wilson passed away of complications from pneumonia just shy his 74th birthday.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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