If there were doubts before, this weekend should put them to rest. Wildwood is back. After a moribund period, the 20-year-old park, now officially known as Wildwood Park for the Arts, is a little more than a year into a revival. Cliff Baker, who took over as artistic director and CEO early last year, has positioned it, admirably, as a park for the people — hosting family-oriented seasonal festivals, pairing food and drama together and continuing to host a wide variety of concerts.
This Saturday and Sunday, the park celebrates the second edition of its annual Blooms festival, a spring-themed event that revels in the 105-acre park's botanical garden. There'll be Celtic music from Lark in the Morning and regimental brass from the 33-member Ozark Mountain British Brass Band. Horticultural tours, from local master gardeners, will wind through the garden's woodland azaleas. For kids, there'll be a storybook tour of “Alice and Wonderland” and presentations on snakes and fuzzy mammals by the Little Rock Zoo. For a complete schedule of the festival, which runs from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day, visit www.wildwoodpark.org.
Meanwhile, Baker returns to the director's chair this weekend for the much-anticipated staging of “The Elephant Man,” produced by the Rep.
As fans of David Lynch and Victorian-era ephemera know, it's the story of John Merrick, a severely deformed man suffering, medical history now suggests, from neurofibromatosis, who's befriended and ultimately cared for by Frederick Treves, a doctor at London Hospital. Together with Mrs. Kendal, an actress Treves hires to interact with Merrick, the doctor introduces Merrick to art and society, with celebrities and royalty taking an interest in his condition.
Baker understands the tendency to fixate on the darkness and deformity of the story, but that's not at the heart of the play, he says. “It's really a moving look at faith, and people's belief in something bigger than them.”
The Tony Award-winning drama, written by Bernard Pomerance in 1979, may challenge audiences, Baker admits. “There is a demand put on you. That is to think. Pure and simple. If you're an audience member who's intrigued by thinking, you'll love it. Then again, if you're an audience member who's more visceral, you'll love it, too, particularly because of the performances.”
Steve Wilkerson, a New York-based actor with a lengthy resume at the Rep (“Angels in America,” “West Side Story,” “Into the Woods”), stars as Merrick. Like David Bowie and Mark Hamill who've famously starred before him, Wilkerson plays the role without prosthetics.
“Early in the play, he's unmasked — his hood comes off — and he becomes a specimen at the London hospital,” Baker explains. “Before your eyes the actor takes on the deformity as its being discussed, and you get to see what happens when a body that's ‘normal' takes on the deformities.”
Aside from Wilkerson, there's a six-member ensemble cast, with actors familiar to Rep audiences, like Alana Newton and Joe Graves, acting multiple roles.
Mike Nichols designed the sets, which take advantage of Wildwood's expansive thrust stage (unlike the Rep's proscenium stage, Wildwood's reaches out into the audience), and the late Little Rock musician Buddy Habig provided the score.
It's a happy return to the stage for Baker, who founded the Rep more than 30 years ago and has directed productions for the theater regularly even after stepping aside in 1999.
“I'm kind of at that age and have done enough shows that I can calmly say no to an offer of something I don't want to do. It's nice to be able to say yes to the shows that mean something to you. ‘Elephant Man' is one of those kinds of shows.”
The production continues through May 10, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays. This Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the Capital Hotel offers a special prix fixe dinner package at Ashley's for $40 per person, plus free shuttle service to the park.