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Stages

Star director takes helm for Company One’s ‘Book of Grace’

David Wheeler has Boston ties and directed up-and-coming actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and others in the ’60s. David Wheeler has Boston ties and directed up-and-coming actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and others in the ’60s. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2007)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2011

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Staging the New England premiere of “Book of Grace,’’ by Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog’’), would itself be a coup for theater’s upstart Company One. But bigger news may be that David Wheeler directs the production, starting tonight at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Wheeler was founder and artistic director of the Theatre Company of Boston in the 1960s and ’70s, served the American Repertory Theater as resident director in the 1980s and ’90s, and worked on Broadway. The playwrights and actors he’s worked with are a starry lot, notably in his ’60s run with up-and-comers Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Jon Voight. “I had five Academy Award winners almost right in a row,’’ he says. Later, when David Wheeler was a Harvard lecturer, Matt Damon took his Introduction to Theater Arts class, which included acting and other skills, as well as a directing class. Wheeler also directed Damon in a student production of Sam Shepard’s “Icarus’s Mother.’’ It’s not exactly the usual resume for a Company One director.

“We were able to get a piece by Suzan-Lori Parks, who I admire enormously,’’ says Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount. “After it was done in New York she did a rewrite, so basically we’re doing a new script, which is exciting, and I wanted to make sure we had somebody powerful at the helm of this process.’’

In “Book of Grace,’’ Steven Barkhimer plays Vet, a border patrol officer; Frances Idlebrook is Grace, his new young wife; and Jesse Tolbert (of Company One’s “Neighbors’’) plays Buddy, Vet’s estranged son. Drama erupts when Buddy comes home to South Texas to confront his father.

Vet is white and Buddy black. Barkhimer says it’s a mistake, though, to view the characters as “reducible’’ to figures like the angry American dad or disgruntled son, or even to racial or political allegory.

“I read the script, and I thought, is this kind of aggressively mythical? Or is it a political comment? Any of those kinds of things. And they all seemed a little too easy for the brilliance of the writing,’’ Barkhimer says.

“I think she wants to encompass as large a portion of the American myth as she can,’’ Wheeler says, “and this is her way of doing it, setting it up in microcosm and having it reverberate.’’

It’s up to Wheeler to make that happen, of course.

“I’ve watched him make decisions really quickly in the rehearsal hall that might take a less experienced director much trial and error,’’ says LaCount. And then there’s the fun of being instructed via anecdotes about “Chris’’ and “James’’ that turn out to be about Christopher Walken and James Earl Jones.

Wheeler is “an understated director, he’s an eminence gris, he’s a crafty owl,’’ Barkhimer says.

Company One is known for provocative productions, especially those that tackle race, such as “Neighbors,’’ “The Good Negro,’’ and “The Overwhelming’’ in the last couple of seasons.

Wheeler says the company first caught his eye when he attended its “Jesus Hopped the A Train’’ a few years ago, and his approval has continued up through “Neighbors.’’ “After doing ’Othello’ at the ART in ’02, I started looking around the scene to see what small theaters were doing, and I immediately fastened on Company One as the most exciting and adventurous,’’ he says.

He and LaCount began talking regularly, and now one of the awards given out at the company’s annual gala is named for Wheeler. Early on, Wheeler offered to direct, a prospect that was both flattering and intimidating, LaCount says, and at first he didn’t think they were ready. Now he says they are.

“I think they have the kind of small-company dynamic that I cherished as the leader of the Theatre Company of Boston 50 years ago,’’ Wheeler says.

“We try to make a lot of bold decisions,’’ LaCount says. “And to know that there are people who you respect who are stepping up and standing behind us means a lot.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

BOOK OF GRACE

Presented by Company One

At: Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, tonight through May 7. Tickets: $30-$38. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com