By Daniel Skora
A special evening was recently held to honor one of Detroit’s theatrical treasures. The Theatre Company of The University of Detroit Mercy recognized David L. Regal for his many years of service to UDM’s theatre program. Regal has been a part of the local theatre community for over 45 years, 40 of them spent as Artistic Director of the Theatre Company. His credentials and accomplishments are unparalleled. As chair of the University of Detroit Theatre Arts Department (which became University of Detroit Mercy after UofD merged with Mercy College), he supervised the production of 148 plays which ended up winning numerous Best Play, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor awards for The Theatre Company. Of those 148 plays, he directed 60 and acted in 47. He personally holds several awards for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Director. During his 40 years as Theatre Company Artistic Director, he shared his talents with other area theatres, directing more than 35 plays for other venues and appearing onstage in a like number. Concurrent with his UofD/UDM career, he served as Artistic Director of Meadow Brook Theatre for five years. He is a recipient of the prestigious Lee Hills Career Achievement Award given by the Detroit Free Press, who once called him “Detroit Theatre Royalty”.
“An Evening with David L. Regal”, as it was billed, was attended by fans, colleagues, and many who had earned their fine arts degrees under Regal’s tutelage. In addition to the usual festivities to be found in congratulatory events like this, Regal chose to entertain his audience one last time in his capacity as a Theatre Company professor. The vehicle he chose was “Barrymore”, William Luce’s highly entertaining portrait of a besotted John Barrymore looking back on an acting career whose artistic achievements were often overshadowed by the notoriety of its practitioner. Regal couldn’t have chosen better.
I can still recall the first of many Theatre Company productions I would see over the years. It was early in the Company’s history, sometime in the middle seventies and only their seventh production according to department records They were performing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and David Regal was cast in the role of Randle McMurphy, the part played by Jack Nicholson in the film. Theatre Company productions were then, as they were most recently, performed in the Marygrove College auditorium. I should have gotten to the theatre earlier. “Cuckoo’s Nest” was the hottest ticket in town and the place was packed. I ended up sitting in the last row of the balcony on folding chairs that were added for the performance. Not that that made any difference. Regal was absolutely electrifying as McMurphy, and the excitement generated by his performance filled every corner of the hall. With that performance, his stage persona was established: Regal became associated with strong male characters, characters who were angry, disillusioned, cocky and abrasive, and lived their lives according to their own creeds.
As Regal matured, the characters he played matured with him. While many of the hundreds of plays I’ve seen over the years have long ago been relegated to some kind of cerebral lockbox to which I no longer have access, many of Regal’s performances still conjure up thoughts of theatre at its best: “American Buffalo”, “True West”, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”, “Death of a Salesman”, and “The Sunshine Boys” are but some that spring readily to mind.
Dave turned in another electrifying performance for his Theatre Company farewell. Just as “Cuckoo’s Nest” was the perfect vehicle for a young, devil-may-care actor itching to get his abilities known to appreciative audiences, “Barrymore” is the perfect vehicle for an actor who’s done it all, managed to survive, and has been given the opportunity by the theatre gods to reflect on his career. In Luce’s play, Barrymore has just turned 60 and unbeknownst to him has but months to live. He reflects on an illustrious career that included successes on the stage, in radio, and in films, both silent and sound. In his time, he was both handsome and roguish, earning him the nickname The Great Profile. It doesn’t seem too farfetched to imagine that if Randle McMurphy had managed to survive the wrath of Nurse Ratched and grown old with some degree of sophistication, he might have evolved into a character much like Barrymore. For his play, Luce created a scenario whereby Barrymore has taken to the stage to rehearse for his planned revival of “Richard III”. Like the real Barrymore was wont to do during his performances, this Barrymore speaks directly to his audience.
Luce captures Barrymore in all his manifestations. At times he’s in total control of the stage, at others seems totally unaware of his purpose for being there. He throws out one-liners like marchers in a parade toss candy to the crowd, offers up tasty concoctions of jokes and naughty limericks, swaggers and staggers through Shakespeare, and reminisces about his profession and those who populate it with an ingrained cynicism.
Barrymore had developed a fondness for drinking since his teenage years, leading to a problem with alcohol all his life. He had trouble remembering his lines throughout his career, and alcohol only exacerbated the problem. Luce gives lip service to his condition by including a character named Frank, the Prompter, who can be heard offstage feeding Barrymore his lines. That voice here belongs to Theatre Company alumnus and frequent Regal collaborator Joel Frazee. UDM professor and Regal compatriot Dr. Arthur J. Beer serves as director for the show.
Regal was absolutely brilliant in his Theatre Company farewell and it was hard to tell where Barrymore left off and Regal began, and vice versa. His performance was a tour de force, a theatrical event to be savored for a lifetime. If Regal ever decides he wants to reprise his performance as Barrymore to a general audience, every local theatre should want to jump at the chance to have him perform Luce’s intelligent, sophisticated, and entertaining script on their stage. And they shouldn’t be surprised if they come to find out that Dave Regal can still be the driving force for the hottest ticket in town. Let us hope that Regal was merely putting the finishing touches on his Theatre Company career and has plans to return to the stage as opportunities present themselves. Congratulations, David, on a career well spent, and we hope it has been as rewarding for you as it has been for all of us!