Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Lanford Wilson Tribute

With Michael Morehead and Lanford Wilson, reception at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (May 2001)

Rarely is an actor on my level presented with the opportunity to work directly with or perform for a playwright she greatly admires. I fell in love with Lanford Wilson’s work when I auditioned for the role of Sally Talley in his Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Talley’s Folly, in college. The role went to an MFA student, but from that time on, I longed to tackle the role of Sally.

This audition ignited my desire to acquaint myself with Wilson's body of work, so I purchased many of his plays. I bought a hardback anthology of one-act plays when I was 27 and serendipitously discovered Wilson’s one-woman play, The Moonshot Tape, which was the last play in the book. I was riveted by this complex, deeply flawed, yet vulnerable character and longed for the chance to conquer her harrowing monologue (in performance it timed out to about 55 minutes).

The play revolves around Diane, a famous short-story writer who has returned to her hometown, Mountain Grove, MO, after a long absence to help her mother settle into a nursing home. While in Mountain Grove, she stays at a dumpy motel and is interviewed in her room by a high school reporter for the school paper. Jackie Demaline, theatre critic and writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, summed up the story briefly in her critique of the show: “The eager, invisible interviewer has dutifully submitted a list of innocuous questions along the lines of “How has growing up in a small town prepared you for living in a large urban city, or not?” As Diane swills vodka and chain smokes, her stream-of-consciousness answers deepen into an outpouring that’s more than the kid bargained for.”

Diane - The Moonshot Tape
Ovation Theatre Company
Photo by Rich Sofranko

Diane's tough, devil-may-care attitude disguises deep emotional scars and resentment from years of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather and a longing to be loved and protected by a mother who didn’t know how to love or protect. The character is vastly different from me and my family experience which is what attracted me to her and is what made the character exciting to explore. Our similarities were grounded in being creative, small-town girls, longing to escape the confines of our rural communities. After reading The Moonshot Tape, I vowed that somehow, someday, somewhere I would play Diane. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to accomplish that, but I was committed to making it happen.

In 1997, as I was forming Ovation Theatre Company with my four partners (Lisa Hall Breithaupt, Scott Sponsler, Joe Stollenwerk, and Mark Sumpter), I was cast in the role of Sally Talley by Michael Morehead. Talley’s Folly was performed at Village Players, a community theatre in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. The entire experience was wonderful—the beautiful story, working with two talented men: Mike and my leading man, Ed Cohen, and all the designers and technical crew. Before Talley’s Folly opened, I gave Mike a copy of The Moonshot Tape and told him that I wanted him to direct me in it someday.

With Ed Cohen in Talley's Folly
Village Players

Four years later, May of 2001, not only did Mike direct me in Moonshot Tape, but I had the privilege of doing it with Ovation Theatre Company, the company I’d helped create. Ovation staged four of Lanford Wilson’s one-act plays during the Lanford Wilson Theatre Festival. The following plays were also staged in Cincinnati during that time: Talley’s Folly by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (celebrating Lanford’s twentieth anniversary of receiving the Pulitzer Prize for that play), Sense of Place by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, Redwood Curtain by Know Theatre Tribe and Burn This by IF Theatre Collective.

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park hosted a reception, a few days before the opening of Talley’s Folly, for Lanford and his long-time collaborator and director of most of his shows, Marshall Mason. I met both men that evening which led to Lanford coming to Ovation’s warehouse to see my rehearsal (our show did not open until the following weekend, when Lanford would be back in New York). Marshall had told me that The Moonshot Tape was one of Lanford’s most personal pieces, so we should make sure to get him to a rehearsal; so we did. Thankfully, I was performance-ready. It was a private performance for him as well as a few select friends of Ovation.

I was terrified at first but quickly found my groove, alone there in the performance area. It was an amazing and exhilarating experience. Afterwards, Lanford gave me a huge hug and much praise, then even offered a few acting notes. It was a pivotal moment for me. Mr. Wilson’s praise was the validation I needed to find the courage to take the leap to pursue acting in the New York City market.

Ovation rehearsal space...after performing, getting notes from Lanford Wilson.

I will always be grateful for my encounter with him; he will never know what a positive influence he had on me. Unfortunately, I was never able to professionally capitalize on that moment, but I will forever treasure it.

One week ago, March 24, Lanford Wilson passed away from complications of pneumonia. He was only 73. There were wonderful tributes written in the New York Times and many other publications, but I felt compelled to write my own tribute to a man who helped change the trajectory of my life—giving me a much-needed boost of confidence.

Thanks for the inspiration, Lanford.

Corrections made 04/01/2011: Village Players is in Ft. Thomas, KY; I'd written Ft. Mitchell. The day of the reception has been brought into question, so I've changed that as well.