Veteran ART Director David Wheeler's Memorial Service Announced

David WheelerDavid Wheeler (center) with Al Pacino and ART founding director Robert Brustein in the early 1990s. (Used with permission.)

In case you missed the news earlier this year, David Wheeler, one of the American Repertory Theater’s most veteran directors, died on January 4. He was 86 years old, and a combination of heart and respiratory failure reportedly ended his life. And in case you were unaware of his long-earned stature, here’s a welcome education from Al Pacino, who wrote into the Globe about one of his early mentors, saying:

“David Wheeler has been one of the lights of my life. He has been there for me throughout and seen me go from a penniless actor who he supported with real generosity, heart and love under his tutelage, inspiration, and guidance. … His love of course of playwrights, actors, and the theater itself was insurmountable. There should be a statue of him in remembrance. Except for Massachusetts and Boston it could be said that he was somewhat unsung in his life, but perhaps like some of the other people we have known and come to know over the years he will become a fixture that we acknowledge and respect all over.”

Big words from a big name, and perhaps Pacino will now get his wish: The ART just announced yesterday that a huge memorial service will be held for the director at 6 p.m. on Monday, May 14. The venue? The theater’s Loeb Drama Center, where he worked so hard and shaped our theatrical reputation.

David Wheeler certainly lived a long, full life, but this loss still caught many by surprise. As for me, I grew up in New Haven, Conn., where I regularly went to that city’s big regional powerhouse stages, the Yale Repertory Theatre and the Long Wharf Theatre, and at the time when they were launching plays by the likes of Athol Fugard, August Wilson, and David Mamet. Once I moved to Boston in the early ’90s, I immediately gravitated to the ART, since after all, founding director Robert Brustein had also started the Yale Rep and he was staging so many of the plays I’d studied in college. It was Wheeler who had directed several of these titanic works like Sam Shepard’s True West, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Joe Orton”s What the Butler Saw.

The interesting thing about Wheeler, though, is that he pre-dated the ART, and just about every resident theater company in town. Yes, Wheeler had been associated with the ART since 1984 when he first became a resident director, and over the years he’d directed more than 20 plays at the Cambridge house, but in fact he had founded his own company back in 1963. The Theater Company of Boston was created to bring the freshest new plays from Europe and here at home to provincial ol’ Boston — which as we all know, was really, really provincial back in those days. After all, as late as 1960 we still had an official city censor, who was trying to edit lines out of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Personally, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall watching stuffy Brahmin dowagers make their way through Wheeler’s takes on the decadent eroticism of Jean Genet or the cacophonous absurdities of Eugene Ionesco.

These days, the ART is being reshaped again by Diane Paulus to much deserved acclaim. The buzz around Boston theater is soaring, and she’s doing it with a new aesthetic of music and spectacle and ritualistic verve that has solidly grounded the ART in a cutting-edge identity that makes the avant-garde of Wheeler’s day seem nostalgic, almost quaint. That’s all the more reason to remember his achievements now, how daring they were, and what they meant for our city — and that’s why true lovers of our local theater history (and its current success) will mark their calendars for May 14.