The finest plays and most perceptively observed characters of 43-year-old Preston Jones were still to come.
That is why news of his death in Dallas on Wednesday after ulcer surgery strikes so profound a sense of loss. I had seen his most recent play, "Remember," there last May. He wrote of Christianity and how some have perverted it to the confusion of its followers. Freshly observed and darting with humor, it was novel and broadening material. Jones called it "a script in progress." One hopes that it still may.
His three plays comprising "A Texas Trilogy" have had nearly a year's playing time in the Washington area, including Arena Stage's introduction of "The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia," the Eisenhower Theater's extended run of "Trilogy" ("Knights" plus "The Oldest Living Graduate" and "Lu Ann Hampton Lavery Oberlander"), which later was done in full over several months by the Montgomery Players. There have been hundreds of productions of these three plays across the country and abroad.
The "Trilogy" enjoyed but 69 New York performances three autumns ago uncannily reflected the theater capital's role in relationship to the far broader American theater. That was the season New York critical huzzahs were for such works as Marguerite Duras' "Days in the Trees," Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land," Paval Kahout's "Poor Murderer" and David Mamet's "American Buffalo." None ran on Broadway as long as "Trilogy" did, and have since vanished from American stages. "Trilogy" marches on.
Outright villains are not to be found among the Jones characters, nor are murderers, crooks, prisoners, drug addicts or self-pitying whiners. His dramatic situations rose from clash of differing personalities, none of whom had the slightest identity problems.
From their own points of view, their actions were ethically and morally justifiable. Their reactions to others provided dramatic progressions. This currently uncommon attitude to the human condition distinguished Mr. Jones from most of his playwriting contemporaries, whose concept of drama so often is rooted in obvious injustices, blatant venality or political stances.
In "Knights" the highly comic action mocked how ridiculous and childish were the Ku Klux Klan and its implications. "Lu Ann" concerned a woman's protective love for her mother. "Graduate" revealed the romantic nature of gruff old Col. Kinkaid, determined to defer his heirs from a money-making suburbia.
Introduced in several variations in southwest theaters, "A Place on the Magdalena Flats" concerned a man's close yet tenuous relationship with his brother.
His plays' relative failures with the New York drama critics didn't especially faze him for he had planned to continue living in Dallas, whatever happened.
There he had found "a life in the theater," he felt, "for which most playwrights dream," at Paul Baker's Dallas Theater Center. There his wife, Mary Sue, is assistant chief to Baker, and actress, designer and director as well. At the time of his death, Mr. Jones had been rehearsing as Norfolk in "A Man for All Seasons" under his wife's direction.
Son of J. B. (Jawbones) Jones, lieutenant governor of New Mexico during 1943-45, the playwright was born in Albuquerque in 1936. Graduating from the University of New Mexico, he drifted briefly to Colorado and into a first marriage of short duration.
He returned South to get a master's degree from Trinity University in San Antonio. Baker, who was head of drama there, had created the Dallas Theater Center in 1959, and there Mr. Jones began his career on the staff as actor-director-box-office assistant. Baker's immediate assistant was Mary Sue Fridge, and within a few years she and Mr. Jones were married.
Baker's center is a theater in which everyone is expected to do a little of everything. The only theater -- and final building -- designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the center's Kalita Humphreys Theater has expanded from a single auditorium to three performing spaces.
One of Mr. Jones' assignments was play reading, searching out plays the center's audience would appreciate. "I found," he said, "that almost every play being written reflected a few neurotic characters living in New York, Los Angeles or London. It made me think that, by God, I'll try writing a play about Texas."
He once observed that he had noticed the name Smith as inspector for a hotel elevator, repeated annually on its license. Suddenly the name Smith was replaced by Johnson. "What happened to Smith?" he asked.
"It's things like that which get me started on plays. Smith? What did time do to him? Whatever his story, for me it always involves time. Time is not the sun going up and down. It is not a clock. It is not a calendar. Time is an eroding, infinite mystery. Time is, in fact, a son of a bitch."
Time, the son of a bitch, ran out for Preston Jones.