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Balm in Gilead

Balm in Gilead is a 1965 play written by American playwright Lanford Wilson.

Dramatic structure

Wilson's first full-length effort, Balm in Gilead centers on a cafe frequented by heroin addicts, prostitutes (both male and female) and thieves. It features many unconventional theatrical devices, such as overlapping dialogue, simultaneous scenes and largely unsympathetic lead characters. The plot draws a parallel between the amoral, often criminal activity that the café's denizens engage in to provide temporary relief from their boredom and suffering, and the two main characters' becoming a couple in order to escape from their lives.

The play takes its title from a quote in the Old Testament. (Book of Jeremiah, chapter 46, v. 11)

Production history

Wilson wrote the play while living in New York City, finding inspiration by sitting in cafés and listening to different conversations. He approached Marshall W. Mason, whom he knew from the Caffe Cino, to helm the production. After workshops in the directing and playwriting units of the Actors Studio, it debuted off-off-Broadway at the La Mama Experimental Theater Club on January 22, 1965, and was a notable critical and popular success. It was the first full-length play ever produced off-off-Broadway, and became the first play from off-off-Broadway to be published (by Hill & Wang). Its two most notable productions since were a 1981 revival by Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and another, the 1984 John Malkovich-directed revival starring Jonathan Hogan, Danton Stone, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Sinise, Giancarlo Esposito, and Glenne Headley, co-produced by the Circle Repertory Company and Steppenwolf. Metcalf was showered with praise for her performance, specifically for her 20-minute monologue in Act Two.

In 2005 the play was revived by the Barefoot Theatre Company in New York City, under the direction of Eric Nightengale, who assisted Malkovich in the 1984 revival. The Barefoot revival starred Anna Chlumsky, Francisco Solorzano, Luca Pierruci and Jeff Keilholtz.


Set in Frank's café, a greasy spoon diner in New York City's Upper Broadway neighborhood, Balm in Gilead loosely centers on Joe, a cynical drug dealer, and Darlene, a naive new arrival to the big city, over the course of three days. Joe seduces Darlene hours after they meet, but Joe's relative inexperience in the dangerous world he does business in and his debt to a local kingpin named Chuckles hangs over his head, provoking him to push her away. Darlene, meanwhile, finds herself completely ill-equipped to handle life in a New York slum, and she becomes increasingly vulnerable to the attentions of the various low-rent men who hang around the café looking for an easy target. Joe, seeing in Darlene a chance for a fresh start, briefly considers giving up dealing. Just as he is about to return Chuckles' money, however, he is killed by one of the dealer's thugs. The play ends with all the principal characters droning their lines from the first scene over and over again in a circle, suggesting that their lives are stuck in a demoralizing rut.


  • Joe, a small-time drug dealer looking to go into business with Chuckles, the local kingpin
  • Darlene, a naïve young woman newly arrived to New York
  • Dopey, an older junkie, the play's unofficial narrator and voice of sanity
  • Fick, a pathetic, childlike junkie
  • Ann, a prostitute whose brassy, "happy hooker" demeanor belies incredible desperation
  • John, the café's seen-it-all manager who is a kind of father figure to the café's clientele
  • Franny, a transvestite prostitute who caters to many of the café's other hustlers
  • Tig and Bob, two sociopathic junkies/hustlers who prey on attractive new arrivals (both male and female) to the café
  • Xavier, Joe's friend and fellow drug dealer whose exploitation of a particularly wretched junkie provokes Joe to consider quitting.


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