Steve Umberger hasn't directed a play in Charlotte since 2005, when he and The Light Factory brought a mini new play festival, Thinking in Pictures, to Duke Energy Playhouse. That was the end of a long goodbye that began when Charlotte Repertory Theatre, the star-crossed company he founded, cast him adrift as Rep's hubristic board of directors steered into an iceberg of debt and infamy.
It was also the last time Charlotte had a chance to see Umberger team up with ace actor Graham Smith, the last in a long line of golden memories that included star turns in Angels in America, The Ghostman, Valley Song, and Oleanna. But although Umberger has kept his extraordinary career thriving, parachuting to a staff position at Florida Studio Theatre immediately after his Light Factory hookup at Spirit Square, he hasn't severed his ties to North Carolina, where he first took flight. Nor has he put up a "For Sale" sign in the front yard of his Charlotte home.
Smith and Umberger are currently camped out in High Point, where a revitalized North Carolina Shakespeare Festival is climaxing its 32nd season, opening King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing on Sept. 19 and 20 respectively after a set of previews beginning this Saturday night. The dynamic Umberger-Smith duo recently teamed up at People's Light and Theatre in Philadelphia, premiering K.J. Forgette's Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Jersey Lily.
Philly saw Smith as Moriarty, but there's heavier lifting ahead for the actor as he shoulders the title role in Lear. How does he see the challenge of climbing to the summit of Shakespearean roles?
"I have always known," Smith answers, "that if I were to do one of the kings -- I missed out on Richard II, I just outgrew it -- I would like to try my hand at Lear. And I knew from having played the Fool before, that there is a danger in coming to it too late. So this to me is, not to make it about myself, but God, what a great opportunity! To jump in this hoop at my age and find out as much as I can about the play -- jump through the hoop and see what happens. So when the opportunity presented itself, my only thought was, yeah, I'm in!"
Smith moonlights at NCSF's upcoming MainStage series as Verges in Much Ado. That production, ironically enough, will be directed by Henson Keys, who will do some moonlighting himself -- as the king's Fool in Lear.
If you haven't seen a production at High Point Theatre in recent years, you may be startled by the facelift to its exterior on East Commerce Avenue. But behind the scenes, the big excitement is about NCSF's new Spirit Center, a complex that houses two full-scale rehearsal halls as well as spacious facilities for set construction, costume design and storage, office space, lockers, and a green room where Lear's loyal subjects -- and treacherous daughters -- can unwind.
The energy of the new production facility has been punctuated by an expansion in programming. Earlier this year, NCSF continued its penetration into the Winston-Salem scene, kicking off its 2008 schedule with Shirley Valentine, the one-woman show starring Umberger's spouse, Rebecca Koon, in her signature role. The Twin City Theatre season concluded with the madcap Reduced version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). Back in High Point, the MainStage Series is sandwiched by a Family Theatre Series -- including A Thousand Cranes, which concluded last month, and A Christmas Carol, returning in December.
Although Lear is clearly the magnum opus this year, Umberger doesn't see its revival as capping the company's celebration of its new HQ. Previously presented in 1984 and 1993 in High Point, Lear is a tragedy whose time had come.
"It's timely in terms of the world right now," Umberger asserts, "because when you boil the play down, it is about a ruler who is trying to figure out the path. It's about a father who is trying to figure out the path. So right now with what's going on in the world, with precedent-setting elections and values being debated -- we're not making the play contemporary, but I think it becomes easier for people to see the contemporary relevance."
"We're in a pivotal moment," Smith agrees, "and this is a play about a pivotal moment."
This is actually Smith's third consecutive season at NCSF, but it wasn't the promise of lavish productions and fresh facilities that lured him back to High Point. Instead, it was managing and artistic director Pedro Silva's resolve to "getting back to basics and good storytelling."
Silva came back to the Festival in 2001 when it was floundering and spent the next three years paddling upstream against the red ink. The main stage lineup was reduced from three Shakespeare plays to two. Last year, in fact, Arthur Miller's The Crucible took up one of those precious Shakespeare slots, leaving only The Comedy of Errors for bardolators. An experiment that didn't really work, Silva admits.
"The Festival has been in this community since 1977," he notes, "but it's becoming more and more apparent that we struggle in High Point to generate traveling tourists. It's not a travel destination. It's not a tourism destination."
So now that the company has made inroads in Winston, Silva sees NCSF venturing beyond -- into Raleigh and Charlotte. Meanwhile, he has his sights set on the Triad.
"Within the next two years, when the new Hanes Brand Theatre is built in Winston-Salem, we will establish a wholly different season of work there," Silva promises, "and that will help stabilize and broaden the Festival's base, patronage, and support."
Umberger sightings in the Metrolina region can be counted on sooner than that. He's slated to direct Communicating Doors at Davidson College, opening on Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m. in the Duke Family Performance Hall. Until then, Lear and Ado will be in rolling rep through Oct. 5.