Sometimes, as the sun disappears below the horizon, Ira David Wood III gazes at his actors backstage. He is pleased with what he sees.
In one of his first meetings with the cast of the 76th production of “The Lost Colony,” Wood stressed to his performers – some young, some old, some veterans, more than 60 making their first appearance in America’s oldest outdoor drama – that they were walking on hallowed ground.
The remains of some of the colonists who came to the New World in the failed English colony of 1587 may be buried in the ground below the theater where the actors try to portray the colonists’ hopes, deeds, emotions and spirit for audiences 426 years later.
“It is a special place,” said Wood, who returned to the production as director this season more than 40 years after he played Old Tom, a drunken beggar in England who becomes a new man in the New World.
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The colonists all died, or at least they all vanished, creating one of North Carolina’s most enduring mysteries.
Recalling long-ago conversations with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, Wood has restored some elements in the symphonic drama that other directors had changed over the years. The result is a refreshed production, with new relevance and excitement.
“Through the years, you change a little here and a little there and eventually you’ve changed a lot,” said Charles Massey, the show’s marketing director. “David is a North Carolinian. He has been in the show. He knows what this show means to the people of this state. This isn’t Broadway. This isn’t a Broadway show. This is ‘The Lost Colony.’ ”
“The Lost Colony” is the first of several outdoor dramas created by Green, a University of North Carolina drama professor who won the nation’s top prize for drama in 1927. Inspired by historic events, Green’s dramas are presented with pageantry and music, usually at a site where the events took place.
Wood, known to thousands of Triangle patrons for his work at Theatre in the Park in Raleigh and especially for his annual version of “A Christmas Carol,” has worked theatrical magic in Manteo, according to production designer William Ivey Long.
“David is in such high demand, but he rearranged his schedule to direct the show,” said Long, a five-time Tony Award-winner who has been involved with “The Lost Colony” since he played a colonial child when he was 8 years old. “David has created an absolutely wonderful production. Getting him here has been a long time coming. He has done a tremendous job presenting Paul Green’s marvelous words and vision.”
Wood performed four seasons in the drama, as Sir Walter Raleigh in 1968 and 1969, and then as Old Tom in 1970 and 1971. Equally important, he knew Green. Wood would visit him occasionally in Chapel Hill, sometimes throwing a baseball as they talked about the play and Wood’s vision for it.
“I always thought I would have the opportunity to direct the show,” Wood said. “I told him some of my vision and he liked the ideas.”
One idea he shared with Green involved the colony’s Eleanor Dare being forced to defend herself and shoot a man. The act of desperation isn’t in the script, but Wood thought it would add depth to a character best known as the mother of Virginia Dare, the first child born in the Americas to English parents.
“To me, Eleanor was forced to grow, it was thrust upon her,” Wood said. “It was the Scarlett O’Hara moment from ‘Gone With the Wind’ when she said she would never be hungry again.”
The newly added gunshot resonates throughout the waterfront theater, speaking more eloquently than words about the life-and-death challenges the colonists faced.
When Wood agreed to direct the show, he turned to McCrae Hardy, who was musical director of the outdoor drama “Unto These Hills” for almost three decades and musical director for 90 N.C. Theatre productions.
“David wanted to restore the show,” Hardy said. “He wanted to bring back some of the elements that had been dropped through the years. He wanted to restore the organ and the sounds from the late ’60s. Everything old is new again.”
The live organ was a necessity in Wood’s vision. Most of the show is now done to a recorded soundtrack, but in Green’s script the organ is as essential as an actor on the stage.
“So you spend some sleepless nights trying to figure out how it all works together,” Hardy said. “How do you accurately present Paul Green’s vision?”
Some of the music, such as the Native American dances, is virtually unchanged from recent seasons, but most of the accompaniment has been freshened or composed by Hardy.
Hope, joy and peace
Wood restored much of the original blocking – where the performers stand and how they move – and has created a great theater moment with the hanging of Christmas greenery and the singing of a Christmas hymn. There is hope and joy and a peace that is suddenly destroyed.
One of the most dramatic changes, though, is Old Tom on the parapet, Wood’s old role.
Over the years, the soliloquy had been moved off the walls of the fort and brought downstage to be closer to the audience. In Woods’ mind the soliloquy, which articulates the show’s message of hope, had to be delivered from the parapet.
The former sot understands what this new world can be as he looks over the land.
“There in England all remembered me – aye, with kicks and curses and terrible usage of tongues they did,” Tom says with a laugh. “And deep I drowned my sorrows in the mug.
“But here – where there is no remembrance – I who was lately nothing – become somebody. ...Have I not now the keeping of some 60 souls in my care – I who could never care for my own? … Roanoke, though hast made a man of me.”
“The Lost Colony” received a Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre this year and its roots as the people’s theater were celebrated. President Franklin Roosevelt attended during its first season in August 1937.
“He declared it as a hit – the president of the United States,” Long said. “There were no bridges then, just ferries, and there were sand roads, some that you had to take at low tide. But he made his way here somehow.
“It is a show of hope, of the future. That’s the story that David is telling.”