Booth's ghosts, the Bard's spirit

A portrayal of John Wilkes Booth's brother, Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth

November 12, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

More than 20 years ago, Gary Sloan strolled down the long lane leading to Tudor Hall. He walked up to the porch where the owner sat in a rocking chair.

"I just had to see it," Sloan said of the Bel Air residence, dubbed "Shakespeare's birthplace in America" because it was formerly home to two famous Shakespearean actors -- Junius Booth and his son Edwin -- in addition to the man who shot President Abraham Lincoln -- Edwin's brother, John Wilkes Booth.

For Sloan, the visit was significant because he idolized Edwin Booth, considered one of the greatest American actors of the 19th century.

"He was the father of our country's love of Shakespeare," said Sloan, an actor who teaches theater at Catholic University. "I wanted to continue footsteps that have long been stretched behind me."

The visit was the first step of a project that culminated two decades later in the one-man play Haunted Prince: The Ghosts of Edwin Booth. Sloan's play portrays Edwin coping with his ghosts after the assassination of Lincoln by his brother.

On Saturday, Sloan will present the work's premiere with two readings in the historic courtroom at the Harford County Courthouse in Bel Air, where an oil painting of Edwin hangs. Next spring, the Silver Spring resident will present the play as part of a Shakespeare event in Washington.

At least one observer who knows a thing or two about acting says Sloan is perfect for the part.

"He has wonderful dark eyes, just like Booth," said actor Hal Holbrook, who performed with Sloan in the late 1980s. "And he has a commanding acting style, like Booth was said to have."

The idea of portraying Booth surfaced when Sloan was passed over for a part in a Dallas Shakespeare Festival production commemorating Booth's portrayal of Hamlet, a show that ended up running a then-record 100 weeks. Sloan had been researching Booth in preparation for the audition, and though he didn't get the part, he came away convinced that he had a compelling story to tell.

The play is about Edwin's trying to come to grips with the horrific crime his brother committed, as well as his father's death, his wife's death, and how to carry on with the name Booth.

"Edwin Booth was to Shakespeare what the Beatles are to rock 'n' roll," Sloan said. "He is the cornerstone of the House of Shakespeare in America. This is a story that needs to be told."

Sloan's road to acting was a winding one. After a short stint doing missionary work in Bangladesh, Sloan returned to the United States uncertain about what to do with his life. In the early 1970s, he attended Wheaton College in Illinois, where he began to develop a serious interest in acting.

He began his stage career playing Henry, the earl of Richmond, in a production of Richard III at a Shakespeare festival in Oregon. He was a notable presence on stage and earned the admiration of fellow actors, including Holbrook, who performed with Sloan in a production of King Lear.

"I was King Lear and Gary was playing Oswald, and he stood out on stage, even in that small part," said Holbrook, who has done a one-man Mark Twain stage show for about 52 years. "Gary has a love for acting and theater, and it comes out when he performs."

Sloan brings his characters to life in an authentic way, Holbrook said.

"Gary studies his subjects," the 81-year-old actor said. "And, that's the way it should be. Actors today look for excuses to be lazy. They won't take the time to find out about the time during which a character lived, or what is known about the character. Gary always does."

Losing out on the role of Booth in the Dallas production seemed only to intensify Sloan's interest in the renowned actor. After a performance in Boston, he trekked to Edwin Booth's gravesite in Cambridge, Mass., a visit that has become an annual pilgrimage. Then he went to Tudor Hall.

Over time, Dorothy and Howard Fox, who bought the residence in 1968, became like family to Sloan. He moved into the house and was elected executive director of the preservation group that raised money to restore the dilapidated structure.

Sloan invited actors such as Holbrook and Lynn Redgrave to the house to perform and support the endeavor. He lived in the house until 1996, when disputes over how restoration finances should be used forced him to disband the preservation group, part ways with the Foxes, and leave Tudor Hall.

Only on a recent afternoon did Sloan make his first return visit to the home, which was purchased by the county government in August.

"Tudor Hall is in the best shape that it has been in since I walked up the lane over 20 years ago," he said. "I feel proud that our celebrated work with the house those few years in the early '90s gave it more of a universal reputation as a Shakespearean hall of fame, rather than merely the home of the assassin."

But it was more than pride that Sloan experienced sitting on the front porch, chatting and quoting Shakespeare.

"Tudor Hall felt a little like an ex-wife, to be blunt about it, divorced from her now about 10 years, it was a forlorn memory, but she looks restored and happy and so am I," he said.

Gary Sloan will present "Haunted Prince: The Ghosts of Edwin Booth" at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Harford County Courthouse in Bel Air. Tickets are $10. Information: 410-638-4540.

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