NEW HAVEN, Conn. — For someone with a full-time job in Connecticut, Michael Wilson is spending a lot of time in New York.
Following his well-received production of Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate,” Wilson is back in Gotham this month helming “Chasing Manet,” a new play by Tina Howe for Off Broadway’s Primary Stages, the same company where “Estate” debuted prior to its Broadway transfer.
This fall, Wilson also will be transferring Foote’s reconfigured nine-play “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” to Off Broadway’s Signature Theater Companyfrom Hartford Stage, where he is artistic director.
But New York is no stranger to Wilson. Even when he was a little over 30 — he’s now 44 — he was seen as an up-and-comer, guiding Elizabeth Ashley Off Broadway in the New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’ “The Red Devil Battery Sign” in 1996, then directing Lois Smith and Philip Seymour Hoffman the following year in Jane Anderson’s “Defying Gravity.”
Ashley calls him “one of the baby geniuses of the American theater,” while the late Foote acknowledged Wilson as both a valued collaborator and as family.
But Wilson set aside his blossoming Gotham career to succeed Mark Lamos as a.d. in Hartford, where for the last 11 years he has established his own stamp.
Wilson, who previously cut his teeth at Houston’s Alley Theater and American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., made his first major imprint in Hartford by launching the Tennessee Williams Marathon, a decade-long project that annually featuredeverything from the playwright’s greatest hits tohis lesser-known works.
There have been some misses, too: A stage project with Linda Gray based on “Terms of Endearment” fell through after being announced; his directing bow of the Bard (“Macbeth”) was a bust; and long-gestating expansion plans for the theater have yet to be realized.
But under Wilson, Hartford Stage has remained an American regional theater force and attracted major talent — including Estelle Parsons, Ellen Burstyn, Olympia Dukakis, Betty Buckley, Amanda Plummer, Rip Torn and Ashley (who has played in four shows in Hartford).
There have been regular preems by old pros (Edward Albee, Alfred Uhry) and new writers (David Grimm, Daniel Beaty). Producers, too, regularly traveled north to eye possible transfers.
Though most of his tenure, Wilson has done plenty of shuttling: to Playwrights Horizons to helm the premiere of Christopher Shinn’s “What Didn’t Happen” in 2002; Lincoln Center Theater for Foote’s “The Carpetbagger’s Children” that same year; Roundabout Theater Company for a 2007 Broadway revival of “Old Acquaintance”; and repeatedly to Primary Stages, starting with Foote’s “The Day Emily Married” in 2004.
His latest excursion to that venue, “Chasing Manet,” opens April 9. Howe’s play stars Jane Alexander and Lynn Cohen as a Boston artist and an ebullient Jewish woman, respectively, who bond in a retirement home and plot their escape to Paris.
But Wilson’s most ambitious project is the epic “Orphans,” work on which was completed by Foote just before his death in March. Partly based on the childhood of Foote’s father and the marriage of his parents, the nine plays — condensed into three parts — have never before been performed together. The cycle runs at Hartford Sept. 3-Oct. 24, moving to Signature Nov. 5-April 11.
Wilson is circumspect about his dual duties in the two cities. “All the projects have given a momentum to one another,” he explains. “As one has unfolded, another one gathers energy by association.”
Including the one he just completed in Hartford: helming Matthew Modine in the stage version of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a box office record-breaker for the theater. Wilson significantly recrafted the ’70s stock/amateur adaptation by Christopher Sergel, dipping significantly into Foote’s Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1962 screen version. There is now interest in transferring this show to Gotham, if rights issues can be worked out.
“He’s a great interpreter, getting into the work as well as into the mind of the playwrights and actors,” Primary Stages a.d. Andrew Leynse says of Wilson.
“Obviously this past year has upped the ante for him,” says Jeffrey Richards, who produced Wilson’s 2003 Broadway bow, the Tony-nominated “Enchanted April.” “He is highly respected in New York. I’m surprised someone in New York City hasn’t gobbled him up from Hartford, like they did with (Public Theater a.d.) Oskar Eustis.”
But Wilson seems content with his multitasking commute.
“I am one of the luckiest directors of my generation because of the symbiotic situation I have,” Wilson says. “I love being part of the vigorous New York theater community, but I am also a Southern boy who loves having a home.”