May 20, 2022

The man who will be king

Every stage actor has a role tucked away in his fantasies. The plum. The nugget of gold. The one to dream on. It could be Hamlet or Lear or Macbeth. No matter, really. As long as it comes along sometime in a career.

That’s one reason why Ken Stack is beaming. Here in his sunlit office where a breeze blows in from nearby Somes Sound, he knows his time has arrived. He has waited 20 years, watched lines of gray appear in his hair, rolled the script countless times around in his head. He’s ready, he says, to play England’s King Henry II in James Goldman’s comedy “The Lion in Winter.”

“This is the third time I’ve been associated with a production of this play,” says Stack. “I love the wit, intelligence and emotions of the characters. The language is wonderful — as rich as you can get this side of verse. I didn’t play Henry any earlier because I wanted to grow into the role. He’s 50 in the play and I’m 45 this year. I’m close enough to give it a shot.”

Which is what Stack will do when the play opens Tuesday for a two-week run at Acadia Repertory Theatre, a summer theater housed in a rustic Masonic Hall in Somesville.

To take on Henry, however, Stack had to abdicate his role as director, a spot he has held at this theater for the last eight years. To fill that space, he hired veteran actor Stephen McLaughlin, who has performed at Acadia Rep, as well as acted and directed in Maine, Boston and Washington, D.C. It’s a temporary switch for Stack but totally necessary if he is going to give his all to this role. And he does intend to do that. He has been waiting nearly half his life to do that.

Anyone who knows Stack knows that it’s a stretch for him — not playing Henry but giving up one of the many hats he wears at the theater. Since his business partner and longtime friend, John Erickson, died suddenly four years ago, Stack has been running the summer operation on his own. He has a solid support staff — actors and technicians who return each year and have invested a good portion of their artistic energy into Mount Desert Island’s only professional theater. But Stack calls the shots, does the books, picks the plays, produces and stages them.

“It’s a tough job,” says Alan Gallant, a Bangor actor who has worked with Stack since 1987 and will play Richard the Lionheart in the upcoming production. “When John died, Ken just made up his mind that he was going to take this on. And he did. A lot of times we think he takes on too much. But it’s something he likes to do. He’s the boss. I think he enjoys that responsibility.”

In addition to his summer work at Acadia, Stack is also familiar to Bangor and Hancock County audiences as a musical director. He has mounted musicals on nearly every stage within a 50-mile radius, and directed nearly every serious — and a whole lot of aspiring — actors within that same geographical range.

Like Henry II, Stack has built a kingdom of sorts. (He’s well-known in the state for his craft.) Like Henry, Stack has also tried to do the greatest good for the greatest numbers. (He makes it fun for audiences and actors alike.) In both feats, he has met with an admirable measure of success. It’s a matter of piecing jobs together, of going show-to-show, but Stack is one of a handful of Maine theater directors making a living in this line of work. It’s marginal financially, he says with a smile, and rather unlikely in a state with a depressed arts market. But Stack sticks with it because theater is his great love.

When Stack speaks of Henry, in fact, the words are oddly close to how others describe Stack.

“He’s an incredibly passionate man with a great deal of hope and many aspirations,” Stack says of Henry, whose mission in the play is to find an heir to ably succeed him. “When you see someone who cares so much and tries so hard, you get fascinated. To watch characters deal with epic struggles on a very personal scale is great fun.”

It’s the type of fun Stack caught onto as a child in the suburbs of St. Louis. One of two children born late in life to his father, who was a carpenter, and his mother, who worked in a shoe factory, Stack did not grow up in an artistic household. Later, his familiarity with his father’s profession would serve him well as a stage designer and builder, but Stack got his inspiration for theater outside of the home, as a boy sitting in front-row balcony seats for a performance of a Moliere play.

“I was just a little boy,” recalls Stack, “but I could see how the actors were moving through the scenery, and I could see the artifice. At that age, I said, `That’s what I want to do.’ I observed those people in front of me do something and affect an entire audience. It struck me at that early age that I wanted to be that effective. If I have any philosophy in life, it’s be effective, affect the people around you in a positive way.”

That youthful moment of epiphany propelled him onto the stage. After graduating in the early 1970s from Webster College (now Webster University) in St. Louis, Stack got a job offer in Maine. George Vafiadis, a former teacher at Webster, was establishing a theater on the coast and wanted Stack to be a member of the company. Stack couldn’t go the first year, but the next year, he joined Vafiadis and became an actor with Acadia Rep. That’s where he met and befriended Erickson, who was a member of the original company.

Eventually, Stack went to New York City and worked as an actor for a while. But he always came back to Maine.

“I wanted to live here and build a career in a geographical location that meant something to me and in a community that meant something to me,” says Stack. “I’m sure it’s something about being a big fish in a little pond. But, here, you can build something.”

Just over 10 years after arriving in Maine, Stack and Erickson took over the theater as their own, and Vafiadis (who also founded Penobscot Theatre in Bangor) went on to other ventures.

“Ken was an exceptional student,” says Vafiadis, who now lives in Silver Spring, Md. “He was one of those people who could do everything. He’s an extraordinary man. You have to have incredible determination to do what he’s doing, and that theater is in its 24th year. He has extended what we began: that personal relationship around town.”

It’s true that Somesville and surrounding towns have supported Acadia Rep, gone to its shows, housed its artists, delighted in the small-town quaintness it manages without ever being offensive. Some have criticized the theater for choosing scripts that have been done too many times. But Stack’s major forte is that he knows what will sell, what people want to see in the summer — a Noel Coward comedy, an Agatha Christie mystery, a melodramatic thriller — and he runs with it. Nothing fancy, nothing spectacular. Just solid theater that tells a story and is unapologetically entertaining. The small performing space has just 137 seats — many of them lawn chairs or folding chairs — and the open windows let in wafts of ocean air. The company, made up of Maine and out-of-state actors as well as young apprentices from area high schools, almost always finds something fresh in the script, too.

“This is more than just a producing house,” says McLaughlin, who will be directed by Stack in “Murder at the Vicarage” next month. “There’s a feeling of continuity from year to year. Ken’s not scared that audiences might tire of seeing the same faces. He rather welcomes the depth that can be added in a shorter time with actors who have worked together in previous seasons.”

At rehearsal in the theater’s upstairs meeting room, Stack sits in a king’s chair and marks his script with directions from McLaughlin. A pack of tobacco — that will later get stuffed into his signature pipe during a break — sticks out of his back pocket. He waits and watches for his cues. Occasionally, Stack steps out of the actor’s role, and talks about the dimensions of the stage, what set pieces will go here or there, and where the entrances are. “How are we doing on crowns?” he asks an assistant. “How’s the cash flow for the costumes?”

Then, swaggering a little and lowering his voice a few marks, he flits back to Henry.

That flitting used to be Stack’s trademark, whether he was directing at The Grand Auditorium in Ellsworth or at Peakes Auditorium in Bangor High School. In the last few months, however, Stack has been noticeably calmer. He recently moved from Bangor to Mount Desert Island to be closer to his fiancee, Kim Reiss, and the change has suited him. A seriousness in his character, which has often served him well, has found balance in a lightness that he unabashedly wears on his sleeve. It becomes him, and he knows it.

Between loving his work, doting on his 4-year-old son, Kenneth (from a previous marriage), and being in love, Stack has a rootedness to his life that makes it possible for him to give himself over to a bigger role than he has been willing or able to take on for a long time. A few years ago, he did a one-man version of “A Christmas Carol,” but generally has stayed backstage with his artistry.

“In many ways, being an actor is so easy,” says Stack. “As a director, you have to do everyone’s work. What a relief to just be acting.”

His colleagues laugh knowingly when they hear Stack talk like that. He hasn’t completely retired his crown of leadership no matter how well he responds to the director’s notes or how eager he is to get his acting muscles back in shape.

But it’s just like he says of Henry, “If you’re king, you be king.”

It’s the role of his dreams, after all.

“The Lion in Winter” will be performed 8:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday July 31-Aug. 10, and 2:15 p.m. Aug. 11 at Acadia Repertory Theatre in Somesville. It will run again Sept. 4-8. For tickets, call 244-7260.

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