This year began with an ending: the Jan. 4 death of David Wheeler.
As the founding artistic director of the groundbreaking Theatre Company of Boston in the 1960s, Wheeler was in the forefront of efforts to build a regional audience for edgy, challenging drama. Inevitably, his passing prompted not just an appraisal of Wheeler’s legacy but questions about which contemporary troupes could be said to share his adventurous and idealistic approach to theater.
Over the summer, it became abundantly clear that the brand-new Harbor Stage Company, in Wellfleet, should be counted in those ranks — and, fittingly enough, another Wheeler was central to the story.
Lewis D. Wheeler, David’s son and protégé, was one of six theater artists who took a leap into the unknown, founding their own company in a tiny waterfront space that for decades had been the home of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. The company, led by artistic director Robert Kropf and also including Brenda Withers, Stacy Fischer, Jonathan Fielding, and Amanda Collins, proceeded to deliver a galvanizing inaugural season.
By any measure, the advent of Harbor Stage was one of the most exciting and encouraging developments of the year hereabouts. It illustrated what is still possible when a handful of passionate artists come together with a vision of theater as a forum for challenging engagement, for revitalizing the classics while also tackling new works, and then follow through on that vision.
The fledgling company brought a sense of urgency and immediacy to work as varied as “Hedda Gabler,’’ Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 drama; “Church,’’ a 2007 inquiry into spiritual belief by the experimental New York playwright Young Jean Lee; and “Sticks and Bones,’’ the 1971 Vietnam War play by David Rabe. Along the way, Harbor Stage also provided a showcase for former WHAT artistic director Jeff Zinn’s ripped-from-the-headlines solo piece, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey.’’
The price for all this craft and all this excellence on the Outer Cape was $20 per ticket, an astute move at a time when theaters desperately need to find ways to attract younger patrons, who are often strapped for cash.
If this were baseball, Harbor Stage would qualify as rookie of the year, but in fact the company consists of theater veterans who boast impressive résumés and uncommon versatility. As the season unfolded, a whatever-it-takes esprit de corps pervaded the atmosphere.
Operating on a shoestring budget meant that the founding members had to do a little bit of everything in their first season, but you got the sense they liked it that way. Kropf directed “Hedda Gabler’’ while playing the demanding role of the haunted, doomed Lovborg, then showed up onstage again as Ozzie, the bewildered father of a shattered Vietnam vet in “Sticks and Bones.’’ Withers delivered an utterly mesmerizing portrayal of the title character in “Hedda Gabler,’’ then directed “Church’’ while taking a small role in that play. She wrapped up the season with another riveting performance, as Harriet, the steely mother, in “Sticks and Bones.’’
Patrons who watched Wheeler strut across the stage as the scheming, black-clad, Machiavellian Judge Brack in “Hedda Gabler’’ next encountered him in casual attire at the ticket window for “Church,’’ where he cheerfully processed customer transactions. Later, he directed “Sticks and Bones’’ in a scorching production that revealed how much power Rabe’s drama still has to jolt audiences to their core, especially at a time when many in the US military are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with unhealed wounds, visible and not.
There was a certain poignancy to Zinn’s appearance on his old stage in the Daisey adaptation, and a quality of torch-passing as well, since the founders of Harbor Stage — WHAT alumni all — are clearly trying to carry forward the tradition he helped establish. With playwright-actor-director Gip Hoppe, who for years was Zinn’s co-artistic director, he made WHAT and its seasonal space synonymous with cutting-edge work.
Obviously, the people of Wellfleet needed no introduction to the tiny theater on the harbor. But any new company must forge a connection with its community, so it seemed a positive sign when what looked like half the town’s population participated in the joyous, celebratory finale of “Church,’’ streaming into the theater and dancing across the stage.
In an interview with Globe correspondent Joel Brown as Harbor Stage’s first season was getting underway, Withers spelled out its aspirations in blunt, even defiant terms, framing the stakes and raising the pressure for a company that was still, at that point, a question mark. “We’re not doing this just to be any other theater,’’ she said.
Whatever else lies ahead for Harbor Stage, there seems little danger of that.