Out stage director Michael Wilson directs ‘The Old Friends’ for the Alley Theatre.
By Donalevan Maines
Photo by Joan Marcus
Success breeds success for Michael Wilson, the out stage director who hopes to scout locations for his first feature film while in Houston directing Horton Foote’s long-lost play The Old Friends for the Alley Theatre.
Wilson’s first foray into directing for the small screen reaped two nominations at this month’s upcoming Emmy Awards, including best television movie, for Lifetime’s adaptation of The Trip to Bountiful.
“It’s hard to believe it,” says Wilson, trying to soak in that his first time directing for TV is considered one of the year’s five best. The Trip to Bountiful is nominated alongside The Normal Heart, the screen adaptation of Larry Kramer’s hard-hitting 1985 play about gay heroes at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.
Gay content is absent in The Trip to Bountiful, although, Wilson says, “I would like to think everything I do is a little gay.”
Having helmed so many of Horton Foote’s plays, Wilson still longs to produce the late Wharton writer’s “gay play,” The Young Man from Atlanta, in New York.
But for now, Wilson says, “The Old Friends will delight, scandalize, and devilishly entertain audiences. This is not your grandma’s Horton Foote. It was Horton experimenting with how outrageous he could be.”
Foote wrote the play in the 1960s, about the time of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and their characters’ sexual antics and extreme imbibing of alcohol.
In fact, Wilson’s partner of almost 23 years, set designer Jeff Cowie, “quoted” Sweet Bird of Youth by making the swanky bedroom of Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff in The Old Friends reminiscent of the boudoir of Alexandra Del Lago, aka Princess Kosmonopolis in Sweet Bird of Youth.
Betty Buckley originated the role of Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff last fall in New York and reprises the part at the Alley, along with the playwright’s daughter, Hallie Foote, as Sibyl Borden, Veanne Cox as Julia Price, and Cotter Smith as Howard Ratliff.
A 1995 Tony Award nominee as Amy in Company, Cox played the right-wing politician’s wife in the 2010 revival of La Cage aux Folles on Broadway. Smith was Butch in Geoffrey Nauffts’ gay play Next Fall.
Wilson and Cowie are excited about their invitations to the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on August 25, where The Trip to Bountiful is nominated for Outstanding Television Movie, and its star, Cicely Tyson, is up for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie. Wilson directed Tyson to the 2013 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play on Broadway.
On opening night of The Trip to Bountiful, Signature Theatre told Wilson and Hallie Foote they wanted to do another of her father’s plays. “We said we wanted to do The Old Friends,” says Wilson. “But we only wanted to do it with Betty Buckley. Horton had wanted Betty to do the part” of Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff.
“We’re coming now to Houston with Betty Buckley and having Annalee Jefferies join us. She has been my muse for years.”
Jefferies, who now lives on a farm in Brenham, played Harper Pitt when Wilson directed Angels in America. The Houston native has starred in Tennessee Williams plays as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Violet in Suddenly Last Summer, Hannah in The Night of the Iguana, and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie.
Wilson hints that his next project on Broadway might be the revival of a Tennessee Williams play next spring. “It would be a return to the canon of arguably one of our foremost gay playwrights,” says Wilson, who presented a 10-year retrospective of works by Tennessee Williams—some known and some neglected—while he was the artistic director at Hartford Stage from 1998 to 2011.
Wilson says that once The Trip to Bountiful closed on October 9 last year, he immediately flew to Georgia to begin preparation for the 15-day shoot of the TV adaptation. “I began prep on my birthday, October 11,” he recalls. “We filmed in Atlanta, Macon, Porterdale, and Oxford. To suggest Houston in the 1940s, we put a ‘59’ sign on a rural road, for Highway 59 South.
“Having lived here in Houston,” he explains, Wilson also made sure that the neighborhood depicted in the show “would recapture that past. In the early scene where Cicely brings groceries home in a wagon, that looks like Freedmen’s Town in Houston. They live in a shotgun house in the movie.” In contrast, the 1985 film that starred Geraldine Page, which was shot in Dallas, “looks like West U.,” he says.
Wilson’s successful segue into directing for the small screen is reminiscent of how Mike Nichols parlayed his career as a New York stage director into a Hollywood debut with the movie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966 and an Academy Award the next year for directing The Graduate.
“You ask as many questions as you can and don’t pretend to know what you don’t know,” he explains. “I think if you know how to work with actors and how to tell a story—and I’ve watched TV and loved TV all of my life—you don’t let anybody intimidate you. You can do it.
“It looks like I’ll be doing another one,” he allows. “It’s been my dream to direct for the stage and direct for the screen, and my dream seems to be coming true as I’m about to turn 50 in October.”
While directing The Old Friends in Houston, he says, “I’m going to fly to Louisiana on one of my days off to scout locations for an independent feature film I could be directing in December.”
Before that, he and Cowie will work on a production of The Trip to Bountiful with Cicely Tyson at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, followed by a run in Boston, where he also will take Ether Dome, which he directed in 2011 at the Alley.
“It’s great to have so much Texas energy,” he says, of the cast of The Old Friends, which includes Jefferies, Buckley (who now lives on a ranch near Fort Worth), and Hallie Foote.
Soon after arriving in Houston for rehearsals, Wilson and Cowie attended a QFest screening of the short documentary, The Trouble with Ray, about gay rights activist Ray Hill. “It was really good, and I was delighted to see him looking so good off-screen. I don’t know how he does it,” says Wilson, who also praised Houston’s “tightly knit” LGBT community.
“I love feeling the warmth of this community,” he adds.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.