The last of many plays I worked on with Steve Wilhite was Richard II at WSC Avant Bard (then called Washington Shakespeare Company). I played the title role; Steve played Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. After the grueling and demanding abdication scene, I would make my exit through an upstage door. A long line of Lords then exited in single file through that door and, once off-stage, passed me, where I was waiting to return through the same door for my next scene.
On the nights when the scene had gone particularly well, Steve, as he passed by me, would squeeze my arm or whisper a word of appreciation. It meant a lot to me when that happened. I’m not really sure why his approval stands out so prominently in my memory. It’s not as if one actor complimenting another is a rare occurrence. It’s not as if I didn’t get a lot of encouragement when I played that part.
Looking back now, as I consider Steve’s life and our many years working together, I think it’s because there is a special satisfaction when your work is appreciated by an actor who is confident in his own talent, and whose approval, consequently, is not easily won.
Steve, who, after some time away from the area, had been living in Hyattsville, MD, died on December 17th, 2016.
The first time I worked with Steve was in 1991, during the first season of WSC. Our fourth production had been Saint Joan, directed by my friend Richard Mancini (who we also lost this year). A few months after our run in the black box space at Montgomery College’s Takoma Park campus in 1990, we did a short reprise at Gunston Arts Center in Arlington, and Jason Adams (a WSC founder) wasn’t able to do his part in the remount. (I think it was because he had taken a role in a Romulus Linney play at Studio Theatre.) So Steve stepped into the pivotal role of Dunois.
While the rest of us were comfortably reacquainting ourselves with our parts, poor Steve was getting plugged into an existing production, without nearly the amount of time to rehearse that the rest of us had enjoyed. Also in that cast was Jim Stone (as the Dauphin), and Jim was in the process of casting our next production, Julius Caesar. Jim was sufficiently impressed with Steve that Steve ended up cast as Caius Ligarius in the production that put WSC on the map.
I can still see, in my mind’s eye, Steve coming in to meet with Brian Hemmingsen’s Brutus. It was a scene that worked wonderfully well, because the director had cast it with actors of heft. More than twenty-five years later, I remember clearly how that scene helped established so beautifully the conspiratorial stakes, and how it accessed (with its contemporary design — Steve entering in long overcoat) the tumultuous state of a post-Soviet world which so importantly informed the production.
That Caesar ran for many weeks and could have run longer, if we hadn’t had to close it to do our next show. The house was consistently full. For those of you who weren’t around back then, please believe it when I say that it was a really special production. Our founding artistic director, TJ Edwards, had gotten permission to use the top floor of an unfinished office building in Ballston, so the production was not only site-specific, but migrated around that top floor.
When the crowd moved to the opposite end of the building, where the funeral orations took place, Jim put, among the audience, actors who delivered Shakespeare’s response lines. One of those actors was Ellen Boggs. I don’t know how Jim or TJ found her, but it was clear to all that she was extremely accomplished and that we were lucky to have her playing what was essentially an ensemble role.
One of the other actors who played a conspirator was the wonderful Carol Monda, and she decided to cap the experience for us all by taking a room at the hotel adjacent to the office building and throwing a memorable cast party, one which began after an evening performance and went on almost all night.
As I collapsed into a chair, when things were finally winding down, I couldn’t help but notice that Steve and Ellen were cozily becoming better acquainted in another chair. It turned out to be not just a casual backstage romance. After their marriage and the birth or their son Orlan, I thought of their family as the first for which WSC had played the part of Yentl.
Over the years, I saw Steve in several productions at SCENA Theatre, with which he was also closely associated, all directed by Scena Artistic Director Robert McNamara (who would later direct the afore-mentioned WSC production of Richard II). Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher and the Danish play After the Orgy come to immediate mind, along with a German play he did with Ellen, called Mercedes.
And I will never forget his performance in Waiting for Godot. In 2004, ten years after Dot Neumann directed Brian Hemmingsen and Brian Desmond in the first WSC production, I took over Desmond’s role as Vladimir, and (with Mancini again as Lucky) we had a perfect Pozzo in Steve.
One of the best reviews in terms of power and perceptiveness of anything I’ve ever performed in was Trey Graham’s CItyPaper review of that production. Trey made the trenchant point that a character in the play who is, in some ways, the most pompous and the most easily dismissible, also speaks some of the most profound and memorable of the play’s lines. What a tribute to Steve’s work, that it occasioned that insight.
I cast him as Tennessee Williams a year later, in my production of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. The great playwright wasn’t a character in his own play, of course, but I wanted to access the glorious language that Williams displays in his stage directions, to which Steve gave voice. I remember meeting Steve around Farragut Square, and pitching him the concept and the role. It wasn’t something that everyone would have understood or would have jumped into, but he did, much to my gratitude.
I wrote on this site a few months ago, after the death of Edward Albee, that Albee had been upset upon learning that we were performing a version of Tiny Alice that didn’t include his most recent set of cuts.
We were conflicted about what to do. Should we honor Albee’s request, at the expense of the production we had created? One of the considerations that pushed me to the conclusion to keep things as is was that the newly-edited version had expunged the arc-resolution for the character of The Cardinal, played by and realized so beautifully by Steve. I just couldn’t imagine going to him and telling him that the climax toward which his characterization built — and which he relished delivering — was going to end up on the metaphoric cutting room floor.
Ellen remembers another highlight of Steve’s DC acting career, a role he did for Andrei Malaev-Babel at the Stanislavsky Theater Studio: Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, “which was a real tour-de-force. Ivan has a nightmare scene in which he plays both himself and the Devil, a feverish polemic on good and evil. He was perhaps proudest of that role, which required a schizophrenic intensity and razor sharp timing.”
I believe that, also close to his heart and a true labor of love, was his experience with that greatest, most daunting of acting challenges, the solo show. Damien was directed by Boggs, and was centered in Hawaii, where its subject did his renowned work with lepers.
In accordance with his wishes, Steve’s ashes will be spread in Hawaii.
The non-theatrical aspects of Steve’s colorful life can be enjoyed by reading this obituary:
And here are some theatrical memories, which Steve himself shared on Facebook only a couple of months ago:
Once upon a time, back in my intense transition days in San Antonio — Jerry Pilato, Actors Theater & crew et al, gave me the space I needed to change and grow, from a career-track linguist with the USAF to a starving actor prepping to go to theatre school in London. Fertile times: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Mass Appeal, Inherit the Wind, Bent, Vieux Carre, Medal of Honor Rag, Streamers, and dozens more. A true on-your-feet we-open-in-a week immersive education, both on stage and up in the tech booth. I couldn’t have asked for a better prep and grounding for the broad-ranging classical/modern theatre education I was about to be blissfully browbeaten with in London at @Webber Douglas, where a series of world-class teachers fronted by the spectacular @Hilary Wood undertook to grind off the rough regional edges and teach me how to walk and talk and fearlessly parse the verse like a flesh-and-blood human, not a stilted parrot with a script to get through.
Scena Artistic Director McNamara provided these memories of his work with Steve:
Steve came to me and Scena Theatre via Ellen Boggs, his collaborator, partner, and then wife. Ellen was an actress at Scena, and also right-hand person as Ass’t Director on many, many Scena shows and events.
She got Steve “in.” Once in, they were both in two versions of the German playwright Thomas Brasch’s play Mercedes (about the RAF: Red Army Faktion; killers of German industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer). Steve gave his all. And more. So did Ellen. We rehearsed at 8am in Georgetown during our Scena FEST. No one in the world rehearses at 8am!!! But we did, as we had so many shows that festival. After the festival, we brought Mercedes back for a full run.
Steve was also great in Katzelmacher (German for “cock artist”) written by filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. As — yes — Bruno, he had compelling scenes!
Later came the DC area premiere of British playwright Mark Ravenhill’s controversial play Shopping and Fucking at Christmas, co-starring Dan Brick and Chris Henley. Steve, quite plainly, was just hell on wheels! The way he played the London businessman — he was a counter-insurgency movement against Capitalism. He won my and the audience’s respect. He was fearless.
Lastly, he played Jason in Medea, one of Scena’s deluxe readings/workshops at the Greek Embassy, opposite beloved Greek actress Ioanna Gkavakou. Ellen had to babysit Orlan, but, again, Steve, to his credit DID NOT read his lines; he was fully memorized. What a night that was on Massachusetts Avenue!!!
Anyway…Kai ta loipa…to Steve, the actor; to his long-time partner and wife; to their wonderful son Orlan.
What a great run.
Also in our cast of Richard II was Kim Curtis. I saw his tribute to Steve on Facebook, and want to include it:
I had the privilege of being in several plays with Steve and it was always a joy to watch him work. He was a meticulous actor who was so generous on stage to his scene partners. He was also a funny guy who made me laugh. The DC acting community will miss you.