The sights and sounds of a rural Ozark community will fill the stage at the Rhynsburger Theatre later this month when the MU Department of Theatre performs The Rimers of Eldritch by Pulitzer Prize-winning Missouri playwright Lanford Wilson. But Professor David Crespy, who directs the play, says audience members should not expect to see a version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The core of Wilson’s play is a “mysterious murder that reveals the dark, decaying heart of a haunted Midwestern town.”
“The story is told in a very non-linear, choral fashion with little scenes popping up here and there,” Crespy says. “It will be challenging for the audience, but it is designed to be provocative. This was originally done in New York’s off-off Broadway avant-garde theater in the ’60s.”
Crespy hopes the play and the affiliated conference will reintroduce Wilson to Missourians. Although Wilson was born in Lebanon, Missouri, and later moved to Ozark, he is not well known in his home state.
“The big issue with Lanford is that he was gay, and I think a lot of our more conservative folks are uncomfortable with what he wrote and the subject matter,” Crespy says. “I think it’s unfortunate, because in New York he is considered one of the top writers in the country. His play Burn This is about to go on Broadway next spring with Adam Driver of Star Wars starring, so he’s a big name in New York.”
In fact, Wilson’s work is one reason Crespy, a New Jersey native, moved to Missouri.
“As a young actor in New York in the 1980s, Lanford Wilson was the center of that universe,” Crespy says. “It’s hard to emphasize enough that Lanford was and still is the heart of New York theater, so, for me, it’s like coming to my hero’s home state. He’s one of the reasons I came to Missouri—Wilson and Tennessee Williams. Tennessee wrote his first play at MU, and Lanford left all of his papers here.”
Voices of the Ozarks
The settings of The Rimers of Eldritch will change throughout the play, with projections composed by doctoral student Xiomara Cornejo of scenes from small town Missouri illuminating the screen behind the actors. Cornejo, Crespy, and the play’s dramaturg, doctoral student Derek Munson, traveled to Ozark, Missouri, to film and take photographs of the places Wilson grew up. Crespy says they also have photos from the first production of the play at La Mama’s Experimental Theatre Club in New York, early drafts of the play, a short-story version, and letters Wilson wrote, all of which inform the Rhynsburger production.
Wilson’s collection is now housed in Ellis Library’s Special Collections, and Crespy says members of the cast and crew dove into the collection last fall to prepare for the play. The students will present their research at the conference that is being held in conjunction with the play. Crespy says one thing that sets Wilson apart is that he was largely self-taught. He took a theater class at Southwest Missouri State University and a couple of writing classes in San Diego, but he never finished college. Wilson later moved to New York and connected with other artists at a little club in Greenwich Village called Caffé Cino, where Crespy says Wilson found his voice as a playwright. He later became known as one of the earliest and most important gay playwrights in New York, even though his works are infused with the voices of his home in Missouri.
“He was really concerned about preserving the voices of these rural people in Ozark, preserving the quality and rhythms of their speech, the slang they used, and the way they spoke as kind of an ethnographic study, despite the way he had been treated as a young gay man,” Crespy says.
The Deep Dive
In concert with the play, MU Theatre is hosting an interdisciplinary conference, Missouri Self-Taught: Lanford Wilson and the American Drama, to run April 26–29. The conference has received funding through the Missouri Humanities Council, Mizzou Advantage, and the Chancellor’s Distinguished Visitor Program, so the conference and all of the scheduled events are free and open to the public. Presenters will include major English and theatre scholars from across the country, as well as members of the cast and crew who have researched Wilson’s papers at Ellis Library; guest artists such as Marshall W. Mason, who directed Wilson’s plays for about 40 years; Tanya Berezin, the former artistic director of New York’s Circle Repertory Company, where Wilson’s plays were first produced; Ron Tindle, Wilson’s high school boyfriend; high school friend Betty Forester; and Ozark scholar, Elise Crain. The conference will feature onstage interviews and master classes with guest artists in addition to the presentations on the life and work of Lanford Wilson.
Crespy says there is no biography of Lanford Wilson, so the conference sessions will be recorded in the hope a biography of Wilson can be written in the future. Additionally, while researching Wilson’s papers at Ellis Library, Crespy discovered about 27 short stories and 100 poems by Wilson that have never been published. That collection comprises a new volume called Lanford Wilson: Early Stories, Sketches, and Poems, which he edited, and was recently published by the University of Missouri Press.
“One of the things that is important to me personally is that the people of Missouri know that this department cares about them,” Crespy says. We’re trying to do work that matters to ordinary, everyday Missouri audiences.” In that vein, Crespy hopes Missourians become reacquainted with one of America’s greatest playwrights, Lanford Wilson.