It was an uncanny coincidence that Pulitzer Prize-winning gay playwright Lanford Wilson passed away on Thursday, March 24, the same day of Steppenwolf Theatre's first preview performance of Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore.
After the performance, director and Steppenwolf Ensemble member Tina Landau addressed the audience and asked for a moment of silence in Wilson's honor.
"We are blessed to be performing Lanford's work," Landau is reported to have said. "His tremendous spirit is with us in the theater and tonight's show will be in his memory and honor."
Wilson died at age 73 due to complications from pneumonia at a long-term care facility in Wayne, N.J. According to Playbill.com, director Marshall W. Mason posted on facebook.com that actors Jeff Daniels and John Hogan were able serenade Wilson in his hospital room a few days before his death.
After living in Chicago for six years, Wilson's talent as a playwright emerged in the rough-and-tumble off-off-Broadway scene in New York in the late 1960s. Wilson was notably one of the first playwrights to touch upon modern gay culture with The Madness of Lady Bright. Wilson would also go on to co-found the celebrated Circle Rep which largely produced new dramas from its company member playwrights for its company of actors.
Though Circle Rep eventually disbanded in 1996 due to financial troubles, it produced a number of works like Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore, Fifth of July and Talley's Folly. The latter play won Wilson the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was part of a celebrated trilogy that included Talley and Son and Fifth of July (which features a disillusioned gay paralyzed Vietnam veteran as one of its main characters).
Wilson dealt not only with urban characters in works like his 1965 ensemble drama Balm in Gilead, but his works also reflected his Midwestern Missouri roots and were often set against the strains of small town life. Notably, his 2002 drama Book of Days touched upon the insidious rise of the Religious Right in a small town in the Ozarks.
Wilson's plays also proved to be great and significant to the development and fame of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.
"Steppenwolf has a long history with Lanford Wilson. His play Balm in Gilead helped vault the company into national recognition." said Steppenwolf Theatre artistic director Martha Lavey in a statement. "The way that Balm captured the lives of nobodies—the forgotten and overlooked, the marginal and disdained—and gave them their own vividness and humanity, helped define the voice of Steppenwolf."
The 1984 off-Broadway transfer to Circle Rep of Steppenwolf's 1980 production of Balm in Gilead brought national attention to its ensemble of actors, notably Laurie Metcalf and John Malkovich who directed the production.
Malkovich and Steppenwolf ensemble member Joan Allen later go on to star in Wilson's 1987 Broadway drama Burn This, which is about four people coping with the death of a gay dancer friend in a boating accident. Allen would go onto win a Tony Award for her performance.
"Lanford was a singular voice in the American theatrean important artist, a gentle soul and a good friend," said Terry Kinney, a Steppenwolf Co-Founder who appeared in Balm in Gilead and also directed a 2010 production of Fifth of July at Bay Street Theatre in Williamstown, Mass. "We will miss him sorely."
Steppenwolf Theatre presents Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore at 1650 N. Halsted now through May 29. Tickets are $20-$73. Call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org for more information.
The National Theatre of Scotland barely formed in 2006 when it launched the critically acclaimed hit play Black Watch at the Edinburgh Festival that year. Since then, Black Watch has toured internationally and picked up a trove of trophies like the Olivier Award for Best Play and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Foreign Play.
Like the ethos behind The National Theatre of Scotland (which has no permanent theater and focuses its efforts on touring to existing spaces), Black Watch has performed in unconventional spaces like former army drill halls and indoor community soccer stadiums. That's in part because Gregory Burke's drama about the traditions and current Iraq involvement of Scotland's famed military regiment is staged like a Scottish military tattoo, with the audience on both sides of an esplanade stage.
So when Chicago Shakespeare Theater aimed to bring in Black Watch as part of its World's Stage international theater series, the company had to find just the right location to host it. According to Chicago Shakespeare Theater executive director Criss Henderson, the Broadway Armory in Edgewater looked to be a perfect fit.
"The building won't feel like a conventional theater," Henderson said, happy to point out the Armory's origins in the 1910s as a military drill hall before it eventually became an indoor community center run by the Chicago Park District.
"I think all of the neighborhood and its history are important part of our brining Black Watch to Chicago." Henderson said. Henderson also added that he's heard the current Black Watch touring cast is excited for their Windy City engagement in part because they've performed the show in more conventional theater spaces recently.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents Black Watch as part of its World's Stage international theater series at the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway, now through Sunday, April 10. Performance times are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $38-$45. Call 312-595-5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com