THE ALCHEMIST Among the high-concept auteurs of the local theater world, Theatre Company of Boston founder David Wheeler (middle, seen here with Al Pacino, left, and American Repertory Theater founder Robert Brustein) was a beloved anomaly.
Why did news of David Wheeler's death last week come as such a shock? The venerable founder of the Theatre Company of Boston — thespian incubator for Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert De Niro, among others — was, after all, 86. In recent years, his frailty was manifest: cane in hand, hearing aids in place, actor son Lewis Wheeler frequently at his elbow. But David, who most recently helmed Suzan-Lori Parks's The Book of Grace for Company One last spring, had such a lively intellect and rich repository of stories that it was hard to imagine his inquisitive mind or prodigious memory at rest.
When I came to Boston in the early 1970s, as a graduate student of acting at Boston University, David was among my teachers. His class in modern drama was an informal affair in which he pulled a seemingly endless parade of scripts from a rumpled satchel, peppering his insights into them with tales from the rehearsal hall among the incipient film stars who had dotted his company. Nor had those famous acolytes forsaken him for Hollywood. Among my most vivid stage memories is David's explosive 1972 TCB staging of David Rabe's Vietnam drama, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, in which Pacino played the title misfit and which resurfaced on Broadway in 1977.
Fortunately, David was only a visitor to Broadway. His theatrical home was here — and so beloved was he by the actors he had mentored that he was able to decorate it with a little star power. Even after his fabled troupe succumbed to financial and logistical difficulties in 1975, we were treated to Pacino in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Charles Playhouse and Richard III in a Back Bay church. Yet there was more to David than his glittery collaborators. Both in Boston's glory days as a Broadway tryout town and in its wake, he helped pioneer the thriving regional brand that remains ours today. If Robert Brustein, establishing American Repertory Theater in 1980, was its aesthetic crusader, David, working at ART and elsewhere, was its gentle giant.
Among the high-concept, flamboyant ART auteurs, David was an anomaly. He tackled the plays of Sam Shepard, Don DeLillo, Harold Pinter, and George Bernard Shaw, grounding even the most baffling or iconoclastic of them in emotional reality. Everyone says (though no one can say exactly how) that David's particular gift was for psychologically guiding his performers. Whether working with "Al and Dusty" or with less lustrous names, he was an acting alchemist. And though his direction was largely invisible, his productions — right up to a revelatory 2007 ART staging of Pinter's notoriously cryptic No Man's Land — were smart, savvy, and true.
I had burned my acting bridges before getting a chance to work with the legendary if modest director who had been my teacher. Judging by what he wrung from others, I regret that. I witnessed his magic innumerable times but never got to be the rabbit pulled out of the hat.
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