Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 1993
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson only knew his father for six months. He was seventeen, and he’d left Lebanon , Missouri to live with Dad in El Cajon . The relationship ended in an explosive argument during which his father accused him of being a homosexual and kicked him out of the house. They never saw each other again.
The events are fascinatingly depicted in “Lemon Sky”, which was first mounted in Buffalo in 1970 and beautifully re-produced on PBS’ “American Playhouse” in 1987. The real time of the action was 1956. Wilson worked at Ryan Aeronautical and attended San Diego State College for a year, studying painting and hanging out with writers and poets. He started writing while he was living here. The play about his father’s second family was dedicated to his half-brothers, Jim and John (Jerry and Jack in the play). Jim currently lives in Oceanside and John teaches in the Math department at SDSU.
“The chronology of events is all screwed up in the play,” Wilson said. “But that last fight with my father really happened… He died several years ago… He’d actually read “Lemon Sky” and said ‘That’s about right.’ He read himself as the hero of the piece. He says a lot of wonderful, outrageous things in the play. I always thought he was marvelous, until the reviews said he was relentless and horrible. I remember him as quite terrific — but he was horrible to me. I just wasn’t the tail-chaser and macho-man he was. I was really quite a sissy. I didn’t turn out the way I was supposed to.”
But the PBS production of ”Lemon Sky” turned out better than Wilson had imagined. “When I heard they’d cast Kevin Bacon (in the writer-son role) I said, ‘Kevin Bacon? Give me a break!’ But he was terrific, and the production was gorgeous. Theatrical. Surreal. Strange. Kevin and I are great buddies now. He met his wife on that project. Kyra Sedgwick. She played Carol, the gorgeous one.” In last month’s issue of Movieline magazine, Kevin Bacon called “Lemon Sky” “the most challenging work and the best work I’ve ever done… the rawest, most complex work that I’ve had to do, and the thing I’m most proud of.”
Having put that part of his past behind him, Wilson is back in San Diego for the first time since. He’s here for the Old Globe’s pre-Broadway production of his latest play, “Redwood Curtain”. He doesn’t plan to visit El Cajon . “I have no particular fondness for the place,” he says dryly.
Wilson has spent time in California , though. It was his teaching stint at Humboldt State in the summer of 1991 that inspired him to write “Redwood Curtain”, a sort-of mystery about a gifted, magical Eurasian girl who searches for her father among the burned-out Vietnam veterans that live among the Northern California redwoods.
“Behind the Redwood Curtain, there are somewhere between three and eight thousand men,” Wilson explains. “They live like hermits, look like the walking dead. I tried to talk to them. Only two would speak to me. They hang out on corners, walk the streets, do odd jobs… It’s not a communal living arrangement, like some of the Oregon , Washington or Florida groups of vets. They’re hiding up there in Eureka , Arcata. Hiding the whole war and its consequences.
“But the play is really talking more about the girl,” he continues. “The first time I heard about the forty thousand bastards we created over there [in Vietnam ], I was shocked. Fifty thousand died and we created forty thousand more. I was very upset about this gorgeous cross-breed of people being ignored, denied, looking for fathers who want nothing to do with them. About four of them were my students at Humboldt…. The play is about the possibilities of that whole race of people we’re ignoring so desperately. That’s the healing process. And part of the healing is taking those badly wounded men into our hearts. It’s a mystery-fantasy-comedy on a very serious subject.”
Wilson has often been accused of writing plays that are 100% character with no action. “I hate hearing that,” he says. “I think there’s a great deal of action in my plays. A lot of it is interior. Usually by the end of a play, a lot has happened and everyone has changed. It’s not a lot of talk and some gratuitous action at the end. [My critics and I are] just not talking about the same kind of action.”
Wilson does agree that character always comes first in his plays. (Among his best known are “The Hot l Baltimore ”, “Tally’s Folly”, for which he won the Pulitzer, and most recently, “Burn This”). “Redwood Curtain” is “a real departure” in that it is “completely plotted, with a surprise ending.”
Characters and events “reverberate” from Wilson play to play, and there’s also, he admits, a recurring theme: “a search for identity, for a path, a way. In “Redwood Curtain”, the girl’s first line to the vet is ‘Excuse me. Could you tell me where the path is?’ And by the end of the play, he has.”
“Redwood Curtain” runs from January 16-February 28 in the Old Globe Theatre. 239-2255.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.