Balm in Gilead is a play by Lanford Wilson written in 1965. His first full-length effort, it centers on a café frequented by heroin addicts, prostitutes (both male and female) and thieves. It features many theatrical devices, such as overlapping dialogue, simultaneous scenes and largely unsympathetic lead characters, that defy dramatic conventions. 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; Wilson uses this parallel to suggest that hope and love are also forms of addiction.
The play takes its title from a quote in the Old Testament. (book of Jeremiah, chapter 46, v. 11)
Wilson wrote the play while living in New York City, finding inspiration by sitting in cafés and listening to different conversations; much of the play's dialogue was taken almost verbatim from the different people he overheard. He approached Marshall W. Mason, who had directed his one act play Home Free the year before, to helm the production. It debuted Off-Broadway at the café Cino later that year, and was a notable critical and commercial success. Its two most notable productions were a 1981 revival by Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and another, John Malkovich-directed revival in 1984 by the Circle Repertory Theatre Company. 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. It remains one of Wilson's more consistently popular works.
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, but just as he is about to return Chuckles' money, 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.
Other, supporting characters include: