Keen on “Lemon Sky”
A new production honors the late Lanford Wilson
When Carl Forsman, artistic director of Keen Company, was about 11 years old, his parents took him to see his first Broadway show— Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July. “I’m not sure I got all of it, but it was a momentous experience for me,” he says. It launched a lifelong love of Wilson’s writing.
Since founding Keen in 2000, Forsman has wanted to produce a Wilson play. He introduced Lemon Sky to resident director Jonathan Silverstein several years ago, and as Silverstein recalls, “I just fell in love with this plays instantly, and for years I’ve been talking to Carl and saying we have to do Lemon Sky.” But the play is challenging, and Forsman didn’t want to rush into it before they were ready as individual artists or as a company.
Lemon Sky is an autobiographical memory play written in 1970. It chronicles the time Wilson spent as a teenager with his father’s second family in California. It is narrated by Alan (Keith Nobbs), the character based on Wilson, but other characters break in and out of the narration and time shifts between past and present without warning.
“It’s so challenging for the audience, and you really have to have great actors to pull it off,” Forsman says.
This spring, when Wilson died of complications from pneumonia, Forsman was reminded that he’d never produced the play. “There’s no question that when he passed away, I was struck by thinking we waited too long,” he says. “But it seemed to make sense as a tribute to him because it’s so personal.”
Forsman and Silverstein also felt they were ready to tackle the show. “I think our relationship has matured as artistic director and resident director, and on this play it’s been very nice because there’s been a great sense of collaboration between the two of us,” Silverstein says. “I think Carl sort of understands the Lanford Wilson oeuvre more than I do, but there’s been a really nice back and forth on this play that has been really gratifying to me.”
He continues, “In a weird way, I’m not sure we could have done this three years ago, even together. As the company grows and as our relationship grows, and as we all grow as artists, the right time seems to present itself.”
In the spring, Keen produced Michael Frayn’s Benefactors, another difficult play, Forsman says, that did very well. Silverstein didn’t direct that one, but he did direct I Never Sang for My Father, a father-son play, which in a way prepared him for Lemon Sky. Silverstein, a self-described “sucker for father-son relationships,” was attracted to the strong patriarchal figure, Alan’s outsider status in the play and in his family, and the writing’s emotional honesty. “While not everyone is being honest, I feel that Lanford is being honest about examining this time in his life that was very confusing and [also] being very fair about looking at it and not examining blame,” Silverstein says.
This fairness reflects Keen Company’s mission to produce sincere plays. “I say that we do plays about generosity and compassion and sympathy—people trying to be the best versions of themselves,” Forsman says. “There’s a lot of caring, of loving, actually, in this play in which a lot of hurtful things happen, and so I think it represents people trying to do the best they can in a situation that’s maybe a little beyond then.”
Silverstein adds, “What I love about working at Keen Company is that we really can examine where people are trying to make the best decisions in the best way that they know how, even if it may not come out for the best. That’s a beautiful and very challenging thing.”
Linda Buchwald is on Twitter as @PataphysicalSci