It's the third day of what promises to be an exhausting string of 15 for Carol Vilardo, the marketing director for Raleigh's venerable Theatre In The Park. Vilardo came into this community theater two years ago as a volunteer, but she's held this post full-time for a year and a half now. She treats the staples of the Triangle arts press like a bartender treats regulars—with kind familiarity, a warm smile, an open ear. "The press [we get] is," says Vilardo, pursing her lips and adjusting her glasses as she pauses to find the right word, "well, limited."
Today and this particular play are different, though: Vilardo sits in a straight-backed chair in a red-walled lobby of Theatre In The Park, a post-Depression relic built by the Works Progress Administration in 1935 on the edge of Raleigh's Pullen Park. She juggles a lap full of papers charting the timetables of other people's days and printed requests from journalists she's never met. Vilardo generally hopes for three or four news outlets to cover the theater's dozen annual productions. This week, she's dealing with at least seven for a show that sold out weeks ago.
Theatre In The Park's most successful alumna—21-year-old Evan Rachel Wood, a Hollywood critical darling renowned for her roles in The Wrestler, Thirteen and a dozen other films—has returned to play Juliet alongside her father, Ira David Wood III, and under the direction of her brother, 24-year-old Ira David Wood IV. Vilardo's sorting the week's correspondence, pen in hand, when she pauses again. She hears the word "divorce," looks up, smiles nervously and interrupts sharply: "You know, I don't really know that we want to focus too much on that time period. It's not necessarily a favorable time period."
Vilardo doesn't sit in on interviews about the theater's productions very often. But, again with that nervous smile, she admits, "I want to have my job next week." So, over the course of 10 days, either Vilardo or a member of the theater's large board of directors joins every interview about the theater's latest production—a new version of Romeo & Juliet set in the 1930s—at the request of Evan's father, David.
Vilardo chuckles at the stories of the supporting cast members or smiles with childlike wonder at tales of the theater's meager origins. But, mostly, she's there to redirect the conversation should someone ask anything too personal about Theatre In The Park's first family: "Do you and Marilyn Manson remain friends after dating?" "Can we photograph the tattoo under your clothes?" "Talk about your parents' divorce."
Strolling down a gravel trail behind the theater's big brick home, the trio of David, Ira and Evan are comfortable and relaxed. They talk about the weather. Ira mentions Black Sabbath. Evan mentions Slayer. David talks to his second wife, Ashley, a close friend to both of his children. They pass Rasool Jahan—a Shaw University graduate who played Juliet here in 1995—warming up her voice outside. She bellows low, long tones that ascend slowly. One at a time, the Woods mimic Jahan, each offering a unique version of the familiar roar. They smile, laugh and keep walking.
Jahan is one of Evan's closest friends in California. They rehearsed the lines for Romeo & Juliet together before arriving in Raleigh just three days ago. The rest of the cast had been at work for a week. During the first rehearsal, they were only supposed to sit and watch. But they couldn't stand sitting on the sidelines anymore.
"I couldn't watch anymore. Everybody was being really sweet and saying, 'You can sit and watch tonight and join tomorrow,'" says Wood, laughing and stretching her arms wide. "I said, 'I've been waiting my whole life for this role. I can't wait anymore.' I jumped right in."
This is the first time the Wood trio has jumped into any project since Evan's role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker in 1996, opposite her mother, Sara Lynn Wood. "This production is one I have looked forward to for some time," David wrote in that playbill. "At the moment, I am a particularly proud Dad and Husband."
Just a year after that play's final curtain call, though, the Wood parents split, dividing the children between North Carolina, where David stayed to lead Theatre In The Park into its fourth decade, and California, where mother and daughter alike pursued their on-screen careers. Evan has become a bona fide Hollywood starlet, while her father's theater has grown by taking its signature A Christmas Carol into other markets and by staging new works. Ira and Evan decided to stage this take on Romeo & Juliet as a benefit for the company. Superficially, then, it's a hometown-kids-make-good tale that's giving a local staple new challenges and opportunities. More importantly, though, it's a crossroads of reconciliation for a family that treats its theater like therapy.
And so, back to the question about the divorce. One longtime area theater artist remembers the split. John McIlwee moved to Raleigh in 1986, just a year before Evan was born. For the past 23 years, McIlwee—a large, avuncular fellow with a wise gray beard who smiles wide when he speaks of the theater in terms of education and as a conduit for young talent—has directed N.C. State University's drama program while acting and designing sets and costumes for Theatre In The Park. Perhaps only David, who founded the theater in the early 1970s, knows the place and its people any better.
In 1997, Evan—then a 9-year-old actress who had been all but raised in the brick building, curled into sleeping bags in the prop room with her older brother Ira and watching as her father played Othello and her mother played Desdemona—had just wrapped the shoot of Digging to China in western North Carolina. For her first lead role on screen, she played the 10-year-old best friend of a mentally retarded man played by Kevin Bacon. When mother and daughter returned to Raleigh, Sara asked David for a separation. She planned to return to her native California with the family's emerging star, Evan. (Sara Lynn Elins was not available for comment for this story.)
For a theater veteran like McIlwee, what did the split do to Theatre In The Park?
"It wasn't a shock or upheaval for us. We just thought, 'She's got the talent, and she's in the right place,'" McIlwee finally allows after the word "divorce" vanishes from the question. "For most of us who had worked with her as a child, it seemed normal, and it seemed right. I think it's proven to be normal and right."
If Evan Rachel Wood's return to Theatre In The Park were the subject of a new Hollywood script, the synopsis would read like so: The precocious youngest child of a proud theater family leaves home with her mother, abandons community theater, and becomes a celebrated film actor on another coast. After playing the daughter of a half-dozen bad dads onscreen, she returns with her older brother 12 years later and uses her star power to raise money for her father's dream of taking his masterwork, A Christmas Carol, back to France.
The details, of course, hold more interest than the summary. For instance, Evan's career has been a series of sterling choices and strong performances, especially relative to some of Hollywood's more famous young women, from Jessica Alba to Lindsay Lohan. When she was only 7, Evan began appearing in made-for-television movies, often shot in the then-booming film market of Wilmington, N.C. In 1999, she made her debut in the Sammler family on Once and Again, an ABC drama that ran for three years.
Over the last decade, she has ridden a rising tide of critical acclaim. Her roles have not been jejune: In 2003, she played a troubled kid discovering sex and drugs in Thirteen. Golden Globe and Screen Actor's Guild nominations followed, as well as provocative roles in Pretty Persuasion, in which Evan's character accuses a teacher of sexual harassment, and Down in the Valley, in which her character falls for a neurotic, romantic urban cowboy played by Edward Norton. The New York Times equated the former role to Nicole Kidman's performance in To Die For. Writing about Down in the Valley, Rolling Stone called her "gifted, gorgeous," her 16-year-old Tobe character "a jailbait goddess."
"She seems to have already begun to carve a path of choices that's based in the desire to do work that comments on the way that we're living," said co-star Norton in 2006. "She's, on many occasions, selected work she's cared about or understands on some level or that speaks to experiences she wants to express over work that would make her a much bigger star."
Norton's observation proved correct: Subsequent star turns for Wood included the role of Lucy (as in, she of The Sky with Diamonds) in the Beatles musical Across the Universe and a substantial if supporting role as the abandoned daughter of a walking carcass of a professional wrestler in Mickey Rourke's vaunted return to the screen, The Wrestler. She plays Larry David's Southern bride in Woody Allen's comedy Whatever Works, which opens here in July, and she'll take the role of Mary Jane in the Broadway spin on Spiderman later this summer.
But in interviews behind The Wrestler, Wood told the press that her role as an estranged daughter hit uncomfortably close to home and reflected her separation from her father and his theater. To borrow Vilardo's phrasing, Wood was speaking to a non-favorable period when she volunteered that insight.
Evan told Fox News that "I definitely personally relate to it. I came equipped with my own daddy issues, and the film actually helped me deal with a lot of them," she said late last year, offering just one version of a story the movie press devoured—that Wood, playing an estranged child, didn't have much of a father, either. "Every emotion you see on screen is completely real for me."
In The Wrestler, Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a drug-addled professional wrestler who's trying to survive by cashing in on people's memories of his decades-old feats. He sells dubbed tapes of his greatest stunts and wrestles younger freaks in high school gymnasiums on weekends. Alone and despondent after a nearly fatal heart attack, Rourke finds his daughter and attempts to salvage the relationship.
On a New Jersey boardwalk beneath gray skies, he confesses to her, "I'm the one who was supposed to take care of everything. I'm the one who was supposed to make everything OK for everybody. It just didn't work out like that. And I left. I left you. You never did anything wrong." Father and daughter find a decrepit ballroom and dance, smiling in the present instead of lamenting the past. The moment resonated with David.
"I went to China. I was there for about five weeks. Evan was just a baby then, and I had left her. I missed her so much," he remembers, brushing back his generous white hair with one hand and holding a cigarette with the other. At least on this set, David is preternaturally relaxed, taking frequent smoke breaks beneath the grand sign at the entrance that bears his name. In the theater, he watches rehearsals intently, checking the script and the action onstage while lurking in the shadows. Outside of rehearsal, he tells stories about his family without prompting. "I found this song that just reminded me of Evan. I would come home and put music on, and she was just this little thing. I'd pick her up and dance with her. She'd put her head on my shoulder, and we would just dance. It was just a memory that she tucked away."
Evan says she didn't have a chance to say farewell to the theater or her father when she left more than a decade ago. She didn't realize she was heading west permanently, but the roles kept coming. As David puts it, she has been making movies constantly since she was 8. Though they'd see each other on holidays, special occasions and movie sets, there was never much time for father and daughter to reconnect without having to drift apart again soon.
"I was so young, I just didn't understand what was going on. Now that I'm older, I can see both sides. I was more scared because we just missed out on so much time," Evan says of her relationship with her father after she moved to California. Ira remained in North Carolina but eventually moved to California, sharing her Venice apartment and roles in films like Down in the Valley and Across the Universe (his scenes in both were cut for time). "It was painful to see [my father] again because I always knew it would be so short," Evan says. "I would have to say goodbye to him over and over again. I couldn't do it for a little while."
There's a goofy, perpetually hey-kiddo air to David's interactions with Ira and Evan, and—listening to David relay his memories of their childhoods—that doesn't seem to be new. He's a playful father who, at 61, seems eager to identify with his children. He maintains comprehensive Facebook and MySpace accounts, and he wears his iPhone on a leather holster. He's an adroit mimic, often imitating actors he's met on his children's sets, including Al Pacino, who starred in one of Evan's early films, S1m0ne. He praises his kids' teenage rebellion (Evan infamously dated Marilyn Manson while still in her teens; she has at least four tattoos). He teases their quirks, too. As Evan scouts electrical outlets for a curling iron before a photo shoot, he jokes about her "Hollywood type." When he later notes that the clouds are hovering low outside, he suggests that—should it rain—Evan will be standing outside in his backyard, playing in it.
"It's just so cold when it rains in L.A.," she says, raising her arms to the sky as she laughs. She's admitting that her once-distant dad pays attention to her preferences. She says she's pleased that this quiet theater and city are her respite.
"It's been difficult for me because I know where a lot of it's coming from," David says of watching her play roles where men mistreated the kid he missed. "But in watching it, my prayer was that she was working through things. Always in talking to her I would say, 'You know it's pretend. Your head knows it's pretend. But you're putting your body through those emotions—anger, crying—and you have to learn to walk in the grass.' That was our code: Walk in the grass. Get out in the sunlight. Take distance. Don't drag the luggage home."
Such renewed family intimacy, David says, simply took time, but admitting that was too difficult for too long. He understood that he couldn't rush his relationship with Evan, just as he realized he couldn't make his marriage work across two coasts.
"I had to stay here and work. I would go out when I could and be on location with Evan, with Ira. But that was a tough time, a really tough time," says David, who confides his family and theater history during two largely chaperone-free hours. "It was always tough to say goodbye when you were out there looking at that 10-year-old. The absence of a father in her life was a void for her. She was lucky enough to get Once and Again and have Billy Campbell be her onscreen dad. I think it was a form of therapy for her. Theater certainly has been for me and for Ira. It's better than sitting on a shrink's couch for $200 an hour."
Evan insists it has been: "I work so that I have to face certain sides of myself," she says. "I believe more in facing your pain and your darkness. After doing The Wrestler and hearing all those words come out of Mickey Rourke's mouth and facing those feelings I didn't want to have to face, it was years of therapy in a week. I realized, 'I've got to go back. I can't be afraid.'"
David listens calmly to Ira's dilemmas as a first-time director—choices about blocking and lighting—and ultimately agrees with most of his decisions, assuring him a certain scene has improved. Ira says their relationship actually grew during the separation, and that his dad's work is one of his central inspirations to be both a director and an actor. David once played Mercutio, the love story's brazen but wounded, lesser tragic hero. He then directed Romeo & Juliet here in 1996. This year, Ira is not only directing, he's also playing Mercutio.
"When Mom and Ev were in California, me and my dad were a team. I was having a hard time in school because I was a theater kid, and I was different. He was going through a separation, so he was going through a rough time, too," says Ira, who—like his father—alternates between Evan, Ev and Evvy for his younger sister. "He always said, 'I'm always in your corner. I'll always be there.'"
To wit, David and Sara pulled their kids from school soon thereafter and allowed them to study at home and on movie and theater sets. They'd had trouble with teachers who accused them of being uppity movie stars, David says, and with children who just didn't understand that their interests were different. The unorthodox education shows: Despite their separation, Ira, David and Evan share an uncanny theatrical flair.
Both Evan and Ira move as if tape is always rolling. Evan is coquettish and attentive, a careful listener who returns stories with a booming laugh. During rehearsal for Romeo & Juliet, she wears pretty dresses with polka dots and high heel shoes, sitting with her legs crossed and face placid, watching the relationships of characters emerge onstage. Outside of rehearsal, she bounds among the cast of familiars she's known since childhood, sharing jokes and asking questions.
Similarly, Ira's every motion seems as charged as it is calculated: Offstage, he moves with regimented stiffness, as if he's always on the clock, always being watched. On set, he walks like a military officer, chest arched just beyond the vertical, moving on the heels of his feet. His demeanor clashes with his torn jeans, thin T-shirts and terse pulls from an omnipresent American Spirit cigarette. He's a fan of a good joke, too, working to keep the mood on the set buoyant by speaking to cast members in foreign accents and dropping an oddball joke into the script—a sexual sword pun here, an exaggerated swoon there. These are all things he stole from his father, he says.
David has been talking for more than an hour when Carol Vilardo walks into the lounge, again holding a stack of papers, ink pens and a notebook. She takes the seat opposite her boss and listens. She puts the papers down and fixes her wide eyes on David. He's making grand arches between his relationship with his children and his relationship with his own father, a mercantile man who died of a massive brain tumor when he was only 41. David was 12.
The stories brim with details: He relates the last time his father turned the light out in his bedroom. He recalls obsessing over John F. Kennedy's assassination, hoping that, since he couldn't do anything to save his own dad, perhaps he could uncover some secret explanation for Kennedy's death. He remembers the anxiety of shipping west to Winston-Salem, without his sister and mother, for theater in the inaugural class of the North Carolina School of the Arts. And finally, he remembers how living without a dad impacted the way he rendered one of the most critical moments in his most significant work, A Christmas Carol. A Triangle tradition for nearly four decades, A Christmas Carol was the first theater performance at the massive new Durham Performing Arts Center last year. The profits from Romeo & Juliet—which, Wood family included, uses an all-volunteer cast—will send the production back to France on the 20th anniversary of its debut there.
David speaks often of his own mortality and his hope that his children continue Theatre In The Park. Now he clears his throat and speaks slowly: "Everything had been written, and I said, 'I've got everything, but I want to write a lullaby for Bob Cratchit to sing to Tiny Tim. I want it to be a lullaby that any parent would sing to their child. To a great degree, I'd like it to be the words I never got to hear.' That's why he sings, 'Go as far as you can go/ Be all that you can be/ Just know I love you so/ On Christmas Day, remember me.' My father's photo was hanging over the piano, so it was really written for him. Every year, it's not painless to sit there and hear it. I draw a little closer to my dad every year with that song."
Vilardo's not stopping the theater's patriarch, despite the unfavorable time period. Rather, she's lifting her glasses from the bridge of her nose and wiping the tears from her eyes. Her father recently died of a brain tumor, too. This is the only scene she sees every year. It's part of her routine at Theatre In The Park. She clears her throat and speaks up: "I've seen people reach around two seats to touch the shoulder of a parent or a child two seats away."
She smiles. David continues his therapy session, without further interruption.
Theatre In The Park presents Romeo & Juliet Thursday, May 14, through Tuesday, May 19. Seats are still available for the student preview performance on Thursday ($20), though seats for the weekend run are sold out. Tickets for a special encore presentation Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. go on sale Thursday at 10 a.m. They are $50. For tickets or more information, call 831-6058 or visit www.theatreinthepark.com.