The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, pr. 1979
Oldtimers Game, pr. 1982
Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music, pr. 1982
Independence, pr. 1984
Eleemosynary, pr. 1985
Riches, pr. 1985 (as War of the Roses), pb. 1986
A Walk in the Woods, pr. 1987
Two Rooms, pr. 1988
Down the Road, pr. 1989
Cobb, pr. 1989
Fortinbras, pr. 1991
Four Plays, pb. 1991
Lake Street Extension, pr. 1992
Patient A, pr., pb. 1993
The Rights, pr. 1994
Patient A, and Other Plays, pb. 1995
Going to St. Ives, pr. 1997
Chesapeake, pr. 1999
The Winning Streak, pr. 1999
Thief River, pr. 2001
Rewrites, pr. 2001 (revision of The Rights)
Black Sheep, pr. 2001
Thirty-fourth and Dyer, pr. 2002 (one act)
The Roads That Lead Here, pr. 2002 (one act)
Lee Knowlton Blessing, perhaps best known for his play A Walk in the Woods, has been a major force in post-1960’s American theater. Blessing’s plays are considered by many critics to be truthful, often controversial explorations in the variances of human relationships. Blessing’s plays reach into the depth of human souls to find the underlying truths that bind people, no matter what their political viewpoint, sexual preference, ethnicity, or gender.
After Blessing’s birth in Minnesota in 1949, he spent his early years in Minnetonka, a Twin Cities suburb. Blessing, who described his childhood as quiet, was raised by his father, Frank, and his mother, Harriet. Frank Blessing was a salesman and businessman who eventually opened his own textile wholesaler firm. Harriet Blessing was a homemaker. Neither parent had attended college. Blessing’s parents were reluctant to endorse his career as a playwright but eventually were able to take pride in and enjoy their son’s theatrical accomplishments. Blessing had two brothers, Guy and Dean. Dean was killed in an automobile crash during college, an event that was later mentioned in the dialogue of Blessing’s play Patient A. Lee Blessing married Jeanne Blake, a writer and director, in 1986 and was stepfather to her two children from a prior marriage, Rachel and Andrew. Blessing and Blake divorced in 2000.
Blessing graduated from Reed College with a bachelor of arts degree in English. Later he received a master of fine arts degree in speech and theater as well as a master of fine arts in English from the University of Iowa in 1979.
Blessing’s first play, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, won the National Playwriting Award of the American College Theater Festival and opened at the Kennedy Center in New York City in 1979. In The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, Blessing presents an unexpected plot element in which Billy the Kid appears and introduces himself to a sheriff who, years before, was responsible for ending Billy’s life. This ability to twist a plot and present the theatergoer something unexpected would become a trademark device in many of Blessing’s plays.
Blessing’s marriage to Jeanne Blake was a catalyst for the playwright to explore different elements of his work that, prior to his association with her, he had not attempted. During the early 1980’s, Blessing assigned himself the task of writing believable women characters, resulting in the creation of four plays: Eleemosynary, Riches, Independence, and Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music, all of which would later be published in the collection Four Plays.
In 1987, Blessing once again used the unexpected to engross his audience in his highly acclaimed play A Walk in the Woods. In this play, two characters, American and Russian diplomats, meet over the period of one year in Geneva, Switzerland, to create a treaty for nuclear disarmament. Blessing takes this highly political and potentially terrifying subject and puts it immediately into human terms. He crafts an unlikely friendship and deep understanding between the two characters, who, while they do not arrive at a treaty or any real conclusions, leave the audience thinking of the great significance of humanity and the ironic certainty that humanity is the likely culprit of its own eventual extinction. The play was nominated for a Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and an Olivier Award.
Throughout his career as a playwright, Blessing has made emotional drama from the stuff of ordinary people confronting the challenges of life. He was commissioned by the parents of Kimberly Bergalis, designated “Patient A” by the Centers for Disease Control, to create a play honoring Bergalis’s short life and its heartbreaking and lamentable end. Bergalis was the first person thought to have contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS through a health care worker. In this play, Patient A, Blessing uses the unusual theatrical device of including himself as a character interacting with the characters of Kim, who tells her own story, and Mathew, a gay man who acts as a composite for thousands of forgotten individuals who have died of AIDS in the gay community. Like many of Blessing’s plays, Patient A evokes the essentially pure and sometimes raw emotions of true-to-life characters in incredible circumstances.
Common to many of Blessing’s plays is the employment of minimalist scenery and uncluttered sets. Indeed, the action of many takes place in single, unadorned settings in which the characters and their thoughts and emotions remain the central element of each play. This allows Blessing a theatrical forum in which to offer discussion of some of the most controversial subjects of the day, compelling audience members to consider and ponder their own stereotypical notions, prejudices, and judgments.
Over the tenure of Blessing’s career, he has received numerous awards and citations, most notably the American Theater Critics Award and both Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominations for A Walk in the Woods. Blessing was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989 and was chosen eight times to participate in the National Playwrights Conference. He lives and works in New York City.