Although his passing last March didn’t earn the ink and media attention of such other recently departed entertainment notables as Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Falk, Lanford Wilson’s legacy will likely prove just as lasting. Some enjoy the Chekhovian ebb and flow of such populous ensemble dramas as The Hot l Baltimore and Balm in Gilead. Others prefer the vibrant character studies of Burn This and 2002’s fine Book of Days. Of course, one can’t forget the Talley family saga, including the highly acclaimed Fifth of July and the poignant, perfect Talley’s Folly.
To begin its twelfth season off-Broadway, the well-regarded Keen Company is reviving one of Wilson’s most challenging, most wrenching dramas, 1970’s Lemon Sky. Semi-autobiographical, the work tells of a young man who goes to live with his estranged father’s new family in California. Keen artistic director Carl Forsman calls the play “a modern masterpiece” and notes on the company’s website, “I think it’s Lanford’s most personal, most touching, most heartfelt play. Lemon Sky [is] Lanford’s attempt to know his father.”
The piece can be tricky, as it is told in partial flashbacks, with the lead character, now 30, often breaking into comment on the action. In his review of a 1985 revival of the play, Frank Rich called Wilson “our primary heir to Tennessee Williams” and said of Sky, “Such is the force of the writing…that even when the bombshell revelations threaten to capsize Act II, we’re so caught up in the characters that we’re moved anyway.” Assessing the same production, fellow New York Times scribe Mel Gussow noted that the play “demands an intuitive style of performance so that it can flow like memory itself, spasmodically, but with a sense that the truth is inescapable.”
If you can’t make it to Keen Company’s revival of Lemon Sky (or even if you can), check out the stunning 1988 television production, featuring Kevin Bacon and wife-to-be Kyra Sedgwick. Sad yet cathartic, it is a reminder that playwrights like Wilson sometimes had to dig deeply through personal pain to transform the experience into art. As Wilson put it in a 2001 interview, “You live within these characters while you’re writing, and your characters tell you where to go.”
Keen Company’s production of Lemon Sky plays at off-Broadway’s Harold Clurman Theater, September 13—October 22.