Gary Alan Wright and Eric Wheeler go way back in the annals of Sacramento regional theater. They first worked together in 1989 at Garbeau’s Dinner Theater on the evergreen drama “The Bad Seed,” Wright acting and Wheeler running the sound board.
Since then they’ve both become veteran Equity performers and branched out. Wright, 52, was an artistic associate of Nevada City’s Foothill Theatre Company throughout its tenure and still makes his home in Grass Valley with his longtime partner, Carolyn Howarth,
Wheeler, 55, who lives in Roseville, has worked lately in local film and with Capital Stage, where Howarth directed him in “Mistakes Were Made.”
This week the collaboration continues. Wheeler directs the world premiere of Wright’s new play, “Of Kites and Kings,” at Sacramento Theatre Company. The production explores the relationship of Benjamin Franklin and his illegitimate son, William.
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This won’t be the first world premiere of a Wright play the two have been involved in. In 2007 Wheeler stared as Edgar Alan Poe in Wright’s “Evermore” for Foothill Theatre Company. That production also featured Ted Barton, who has the Franklin role in “Of Kites and Kings.” Dan Fagan plays William, and Katie Rubin is the play’s narrator, Polly Stevenson.
“Of Kites and Kings” was launched after Wright approached STC producing director Michael Laun about the company doing “Evermore.” Laun wanted a new work.
“One of the things he (Laun) cared about a lot was that it was marketable to schools,” Wright said, “that it had something to do with the curriculum.”
Laun sent him a reading list, and Wright pitched numerous ideas before they settled on Franklin. Considering the American statesman’s depth, complexity and varied accomplishments, there were several ways a piece about him could go. What most excited Laun and Wright was the less widely known personal story.
Father and son “were on opposing sides during the Revolutionary War,” Wright said. Franklin had sent William to England to study law, and there the son became a conservative royalist. But they had been close, and William was only person accompanying Franklin during his legendary electrical experiment with a kite and a key.
“At the time I pitched it, that was all I knew, and I knew it from seeing ‘1776’ (the musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence) because it’s mentioned briefly in that,” Wright said.
So off he went to do some research on Franklin and fill the gaps. He expected a version of what he’d experienced writing “Evermore” when he found Edgar Alan Poe increasingly engaging and sympathetic the more he knew about him.
“I thought ‘Franklin is already pretty cuddly and wonderful, (and) I know I’m going to love him,’ and I didn’t,” Wright said. “The more I learned about him, the less I liked him personally.”
He researched Franklin thoroughly, reading his autobiography and numerous published papers including family letters.
“He would have been a really disappointing family member,” Wright said. “He saved all the charm and diplomacy for work and parties, apparently. At home he was kind of a jerk.”
Having a deeper sense of Franklin and disliking the man made the job of writing honestly about him significantly harder. Wright wasn’t sure he wanted to do it.
“It’s going to feel like a hatchet job, a small man chopping away at a big man, and I’m not interested in that as an artist or a human being,” he said.
Wright had to acknowledge, though, that Franklin’s public life was extraordinary. The work he did to repeal the Stamp Act, negotiating peace after the Revolutionary War, writing the Constitution, trying to abolish slavery were all part of a significant world figure.
“I couldn’t stay mad at him,” Wright said. “He’s great man, and he lived twice as long as people did in those days and was active the entire time right up to the last year of his life.”
Wright asked Wheeler to direct, and their longtime friendship and professional relationship has helped them work effectively to get the play on its feet. There’s been an efficient, honest give-and-take about the play as it’s evolved in rehearsals.
“As an actor primarily and as a director as well, your primary goal is to serve the text, the words of the playwright,” Wheeler said.
He feels it’s a luxury to have the playwright in the room to help figure how to make the production work. Sometimes the questions are logistics of movement. Other times they’re about character intentions and motivations.
“If questions come up – from the actors or from myself – I just say to Gary, ‘So, what were you going for here?’ ” Wheeler said.
Having done a a lot screenwriting recently – he’s adapted “Evermore” for film – Wright noted that respect for the writer is very different in the popular medium.
“I’ve been doing enough screenwriting now that I don’t have much reverence for my own words anymore,” Wright said. “Eric is much more respectful of the script than I am. I’m happy to change stuff as long as I think it makes it better.”
Of Kites and Kings
What: World premiere of a play by Gary Alan Wright, directed by Eric Wheeler, with Ted Barton, Dan Fagan and Katie Rubin
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Pollock Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; Nov. 4–Dec. 13
Information: 916-443-6722; www.sactheatre.org