Every time they get together for a new play, actors form a kind of family. These can be friendly or dysfunctional, lasting perhaps a few weeks. Or they can last years, as is the case with many of the actors at Asolo Repertory Theatre, who have forged all kinds of relationships over the years, from siblings or spouses to parent and child.
And if there’s a patriarch among them, it is clearly David S. Howard, who has played the father to at least a half-dozen actors who are part of this year’s company.
When he was looking over the roster of actors performing at Asolo Rep this season, Howard said he realized that four of the actresses have played his daughter at one time (or theater) or another. His eyes lit up like a proud papa when he was then told he could add a couple of the company’s resident actors to his list of stage children.
“When you’ve been around as long as I have, it’s bound to happen,” Howard said with characteristic humility. “I have three daughters of my own and they couldn’t be more different, but I love them all, and the same with the actresses here.”
In two different productions of “I’m Not Rappaport,” Howard played father to longtime Asolo Rep company member Carolyn Michel, and to guest actress Lauren Klein, who was seen earlier this season in “Other Desert Cities.”
Antoinette LaVecchia, who will star in the one-woman show “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti,” played Howard’s daughter years ago in a Syracuse Stage production of “The Last Adam.”
And Howard is enjoying the second season in a row playing father to Peggy Roeder. Last season, she was his daughter, Penny Sycamore, in “You Can’t Take It With You” and she now plays his daughter-in-law Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath.”
David Breitbarth and Douglas Jones are currently playing his sons in “The Grapes of Wrath.” And while Jimmy Clarke isn’t performing on stage this season, he is around town and has been like a son to Howard for decades.
Working with actors over and over, no matter the relationship, helps cast members better connect, he said.
“There’s a trust that develops. There’s a feeling that you can’t really describe,” Howard said. “I feel that now with Peggy. It’s a form of love. Something different happens with familial relationships that is necessary to develop in one show, and it carries over in a strange way to the next, even though Peggy’s character of Ma Joad is worlds away from Penny Sycamore.”
Michel jokes that her familial relationship with Howard is the most varied. She first played his granddaughter, Essie, in “You Can’t Take It With You” in a Golden Apple Dinner Theatre production. Then she played his daughter in “I’m Not Rappaport” at Asolo Rep.
“And now I’m playing his wife in ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ I’ve gone from granddaughter to grandmother and wife. That’s a career in the theater,” she said.
Klein and Howard were in a national tour of “I’m Not Rappaport,” where he understudied Judd Hirsch, but they rarely got to perform for audiences, only each other during understudy rehearsals.
“He was just a lovely, generous man. We had lots of run throughs and got to work together in those,” she said.
Howard said the actors at Asolo Rep have become “part of a family. You’re not only playing family relationships on stage, but you’re a family of actors. They tease me and make just as much fun of me as anyone else. I hope that we keep things light and fun. Fun is an important part of the work process.”
“Even if he’s your father or a father figure, he’s like one of the kids,” Breitbarth said. “He’s child like, in the best way.”
At 85, Howard has lost none of the zest for the next role or the detailed preparation for which he has become known.
“He’s always present. There’s always that great twinkle that he brings on, that internal twinkle,” said Michel. “He’s also always connected and very generous so that you’re always with him in the scene, whether you’re playing his granddaughter, or his consort or his wife.”
Howard may walk a little slower these days, but his colleagues say when you get him on stage with the lights on and an audience out front, “you’d never know anything was different,” Roeder said. “When they call places, he’s practically doing cartwheels. He might shuffle into the theater, but then he’d come alive on stage.”
Clarke, who had his first big Equity role playing Howard’s son in a production of “Da,” says the actor still has a “steel trap” of a mind.
“He has focus to spare,” Clarke said. “All actors are looking for focus, looking to be in the moment and he’s got that in the back of his pocket so he can afford to have fun.”
That skill is the envy of the other actors. “He kind of sets the bar high,” Roeder said.
In Jones’s first production at Asolo Rep, “The Show-Off” in the 1981-82 season, Howard played his father. Even though they have shared the stage countless times, there hasn’t been that kind of family relationship until “Grapes” this season. Breitbarth also has been in countless plays with the actor, but he’s never played his son until now.
The resident actors have known one another for decades. Clarke, who lived with Howard when he was a student at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory, hosted Howard’s wedding at his home and even played the guitar and sang at the ceremony.
“He was a mentor definitely. He was such an advanced actor even back then, so he was always encouraging more by example than by telling you. I’d come home from the bar at 1 in the morning and he’d be working on the script. He’d say, ‘There’s this one little line that’s not quite right, one little scene.’ And I’d think I’d better get to work, too,” Clarke recalled.
Breitbarth said that’s a reminder actors “can never be too prepared. I’ve never seen anybody come into rehearsal as prepared as he is. If you come in that prepared, the rest of it is just play, if you’re good.”
Howard has the kind of qualities that other actors like to have around, Roeder said. “There are actors where you think I hope I do every show with this person and and there are people who you hope you never have to do another play with. You want to be with David.”
He also has a wonderful way of relating to directors, Michel said.
“A director will say try it this way or do this, and he says, ‘Oh yeah, that’s good’ and he’ll giggle. There is no sense if he think it’s good direction. He just always responds positively to the director.”
Over the years, Howard has been a mentor to many actors just by example.
“The biggest gift he’s given me is about the joy of being an actor and how lucky we are to be able to do it,” Clarke said.
David Howard can be seen in “The Grapes of Wrath” through April 19 at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information: 351-8000; asolorep.org