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Every family has skeletons in its closet. But the Booth family of Bel Air, Md., has a whole boneyard — as Theatre in the Park's June 13-29 production of Finale, written and directed by TIP executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III, will amply demonstrate!
The pater familias, prominent 19th century tragedian Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852), is as famous for his episodes of madness and his epic drinking binges as he is for his electrifying stage performances. Indeed, some authorities claim that the emotionally volatile English immigrant and his second wife, former Covent Garden flower girl Mary Anne Holmes, had all or most of their 10 children (two of whom died early) before Booth received a divorce from his first wife!
The ninth of their 10 children and his parents' favorite, handsome but hot-tempered matinee idol John Wilkes Booth (1838-65), is infamous for assassinating President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) on April 14, 1865, in Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. But John Wilkes Booth's older brother and fellow actor, Edwin Thomas Booth (1833-93), overcame early battles with the bottle and the post-assassination backlash against actors in general and the Booth family in particular to become, arguably, the foremost American tragedian of his day.
(Editor's Note: Robert McDowell probably has the most complete book and magazine collection on Edwin and John Wilkes Booth in this state. He loaned his Booth library and Lincoln assassination books to David Wood for use as background material during preproduction of Finale, but he had nothing to do with the writing of the script or the production itself.)
TIP actor/director/playwright David Wood uses a pivotal episode in Edwin Booth's life as the opening scene for his backstage drama about the so-called "Mad Booths of Maryland."
"Seven years after the deaths of President Lincoln (Scott Renz) and John Wilkes Booth (Will Jayroe)," Wood says, "the famous actor Edwin Booth (Eric Carl) has himself locked in the basement of his theater [The Booth Theatre in New York City]. There, he unlocks a trunk that had formally belonged to his father, Junius Brutus Booth, and then to his brother, John Wilkes Booth. The event actually happened — and there is still some question about the contents of the trunk. They were all burned by Edwin.
"In Finale," Wood explains, "the ghosts of Edwin's yesterdays return from the dark Past to confront him in an effort to enable him to return to the living world."
The cast also includes Amy Bossi as Edwin's wife and soul mate, Mary Devlin Booth; Aaron Dunlap as Garrie Davidson; Anna Giles as Edwin's sister Asia; and Sandra Shelton as his mother. Besides director David Wood, who doubles as sound designer for Finale, the production team includes the prodigiously talented husband-and-wife team of set and lighting designer Steve Larson and costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson.
"Finale is very theatrical," Wood claims. "There are excerpts from Shakespeare which have been included. It lends itself to flamboyant performances — which is entertaining... but the actors have to keep their balance and also keep it 'real.'"
The inspiration for Finale can be found in an anecdote about Edwin Booth that actor Otis Skinner included in one of his books of theatrical memoirs. "I was mesmerized about the story of the trunk," says David Wood. "I always thought it was a strong centerpiece for the story."
Wood says he was also intrigued by "What makes us heroes and what makes us villains — and why does one person choose one path and another person... in this case a brother... choose such a different path. Do we do what we do to gain immortality? Is it because we want to be remembered? I love Edwin's line about Mary: 'Why do we all have to go and be forgotten?'"
David Wood says, "I remember reading about Lincoln's assassination and being so affected by it. This was long before President Kennedy was shot. I remember thinking how much sadness seemed to be in Lincoln's eyes in all the photographs. I remember thinking how wild John Wilkes Booth's eyes seemed to appear.
"As I grew older and began to write plays, I found a great deal of satisfaction in dealing with significant historical events. The murder of the Romanovs became a source of interest as did the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Both plays turned out to be psychological detective stories — and were received extremely well when they premiered around 17 years ago. I've not done anything with them since.
"Some months ago," Wood recalls, "an old friend suggested remounting some of my original scripts. 'They'll be new to at least several generations.' I'm sure the latter was meant to encourage me. It merely sent me to the mirror to count the additional gray hairs."
Wood adds, "I do think the characters in [Finale] are fascinating. The Booth family! Incredible actors. Dramatic in their private lives as well as their professional lives. And, in many instances, I have used actual quotes from diaries or other reliable sources. The same is true of Abraham Lincoln. He had a foreboding dream a few weeks before going to Ford's Theatre. I included it in the script as it was meticulously written down by someone who heard him recount the experience."
David Wood's Romanov drama, Galatea, is a murder mystery dramatizing the White Russians' frantic search for Anastasia after the murder of the Tsar. His Lincoln assassination drama, then called Blood Brothers, focused on the strained relationship between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth. (John Wilkes Booth was a Southern sympathizer, whereas the nominally apolitical Edwin Booth not only voted for Lincoln but actually saved Lincoln's eldest son from a grisly death when Robert Todd Lincoln nearly fell off a N.Y. train platform into the path of an oncoming locomotive.)
"The critics were unanimous in their praise of Blood Brothers," Wood recalls. "I had a marvelous cast — and was young enough to tackle the role of John Wilkes. Eric Woodall made his TIP debut in the play. I had Jack Hall, Roger Jones, Helen Crisp, and Mary Rowland. A new generation of theatergoers may not know who these people are, but by God they lit up a stage together!"
In Finale, Wood says, "Eric Carl will be playing the role of Edwin Booth. As always, it's been a delight to work with him. There are few actors in this area who can pull off the style of classical acting demanded by the framework of this play and make it look damned interesting. Eric is one of the few with that rare combination to technique and natural grace.
"Will Jayroe has simply become [John Wilkes Booth]. There's no other way to describe watching him work. He's everywhere at once ... changing blocking every night ... working his way slowly but surely into the heart and soul of a human volcano that was John Wilkes Booth."
Wood adds, "Shawn Stewart-Larson and Steve Larson have teamed up once more to produce incredible costumes, lights and sets for the show." Woods says the set for Finale recreates "the basement of The Booth Theatre in New York — a strange place to anyone other than someone familiar with the backstage of a theater." He says the costumes will be "period style and quite beautiful" and the lighting will be "moody, dim — yet changing with the emotions of each scene and geographic location."
Music of the period — often played on original instruments — will provide a soundtrack for Finale, Wood says.
He adds, "The premiere of Finale is one of the few openings I will be forced to miss in my entire career, however. As the curtain rises on Friday evening, I'll be recovering from a bilateral temporal artery biopsy, which will have been performed earlier that morning. May I take this moment to wish my company well."
Editor's Note: Readers may mail get-well cards to David Wood in care of TIP, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, NC 27607.
Historical Footnote: Tired of being deprived of leading roles by backstage machinations of actor Edmund Kean (1787?-1833) and other rival actors, up-and-coming young English tragedian Junius Brutus Booth emigrated to the United States in 1821. That same year, he applied for several jobs, including one as keeper of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, before making his American debut July 6 in Richmond, Va., playing the title role in William Shakespeare's Richard III. Given his later struggles with sanity and sobriety, it is hard to imagine whether a strenuous and isolated job as a lighthouse keeper would have ameliorated or exacerbated Junius Brutus Booth's tendencies toward mental illness.
Theatre in the Park presents Finale Friday-Saturday, June 13-14, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 15, at 3 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, June 19-21 and 26-28, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 22 and 29, at 3 p.m. at TIP, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. (Note 1: The June 19 performance will be audio described. Note 2: TIP will host a Civil War historical reenactment by the 26th Regiment North Carolina Troops (http://www.26nc.org/) from 4 to 6 p.m. June 21.) $18 ($12 students, seniors, and military personnel). 919/831-6058. http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2002-3season/finale/finale.html.