If Chekhov, that supreme painter of ironies, is looking down from the heavens, he is no doubt smiling with quiet pleasure over the casting of William Ball as Leonid Gaev, whose family loses its homestead and deficit-plagued property in "The Cherry Orchard" at the La Jolla Playhouse.
It's perfect casting and not just because Ball lost his own cherry orchard of sorts four years ago. At the time, he resigned amid charges of poor management of the deficit-ridden American Conservatory Theatre, the San Francisco company he had founded and directed for 21 years.
Like Gaev, who is endlessly distracted by beauty, the 59-year-old Ball insists on accentuating the positive, even, some might say, at the expense of truth. After granting no interviews in four years, there are numerous questions about the various accusations leveled at him in 1986.
Did Ball--one of the pioneers of the regional theater movement--advance his own salary disproportionately at a time when the theater was in fiscal crisis? Was the well-publicized fight between him and Cyril Magnin, his longtime fund-raiser, the beginning of the end? Does he regret the letter he wrote to the California Arts Council, accusing the organization of "being ineffective and lacking in integrity" after it cut ACT's grant allocation by 83% from 1980 to 1982? Does he regret leaving ACT?
No, says he, denying it all, down to having the slightest twinge at the loss of ACT, where he hasn't seen a show since he left.
"I did everything I wanted to do as a producer of a resident theater," he said. "I produced all the plays I wanted to (more than 300), raised all the money I ever want to raise. Twenty years at a job is enough."
The only thing he does admit to is an unwillingness to talk about regrets: "The dark time," he says, "is like putting out the garbage. You don't look at the garbage."
In a way, it is his continuing belief in himself that propelled his rise and then kept him afloat after his fall from grace.
"I've always had this sense of being guided," he said recently. Such a hand may have pushed him to take this part--the first acting job in 28 years for a man whom Craig Noel, executive director of the Old Globe Theatre here, calls "the best Hamlet I've ever seen." Ball played the role at the Old Globe in 1955.
Guided or not, what in fact happened was that Ball moved to Los Angeles in 1986 to develop feature film and television projects with producer Bud Yorkin; nothing came of that and he was willing to try something new after four years of sporadic employment, which included teaching and an ill-fated assignment at the Odyssey Theatre to direct "Tom and Viv." (Ron Sossi, artistic director of the Odyssey, told The Times that Ball quit prior to the opening when Sossi found fault with the leading actor, Scot Bishop; Ball said that he never formally agreed to direct the piece in the first place.)
Ball acquired a casting agent who, on seeing Ball with a beard (since shaved), thought he looked Russian and sent Ball's picture to the Playhouse. He didn't realize that "Cherry Orchard" director Tom Moore had staged many shows for Ball at ACT, including a lavishly reviewed production of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters."
Moore and Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff went to Ball's home in Los Angeles to discuss the part and Ball auditioned for the role as any other actor would. "I wasn't quite sure how it would go . . . . But I'm having the time of my life."
After years of literally and figuratively being the golden-haired boy, Ball, now balding and gray beneath the blond wig that he dons for Gaev, retains the charismatic zeal for art that has touched so many artists who worked under him at ACT: Harry Hamlin, Annette Benning, Michael Learned, Denzel Washington, Rene Auberjonois and Mark Harelik (also in "Cherry Orchard").
Harelik, who worked at ACT, from 1979-81, says he has never seen Ball work so hard, or be so happy.
"It was very important to him that the play be successful and his role be successful," said Harelik, who plays Yermolai Lopakhin--the character who purchases the Gaev estate.
"I don't think he really knew what it would be like walking on stage again, in probably what he considered to be a relatively high-powered company, and with as demanding a director as Tom Moore, who is an absolute perfectionist. For him it was something like jumping off a cliff at night.
"There is no sense of having been his prior subordinate," Harelik said. "It's almost as though during those years as artistic director he wanted to climb up on stage with us and now he's gotten his chance. He's just in heaven."
Ball is also making a return as a director. Another graduate of ACT's acting program, Bonnie Tarwater, now the artistic director of the Del Mar Theatre Ensemble, just hired Ball to direct his own translation of Moliere's "Scapin," starring Tarwater and Scot Bishop (of the "Tom and Viv" controversy), for a July opening in San Diego. She sings his praises: "A lot of his ideas of heroics and positive thinking, the idea that if you can envision something you can make it so, has influenced my life in a big way."
Recent hip replacement surgery has left Ball limping slightly and using a cane, which seems a poignant reminder of the knocks he has sustained. But his performance as Gaev is extravagant and fine, even though Ball refers to Gaev, affectionately, as "one of the dingiest characters that ever lived."
"He wants to inspire high principles. He wants to preserve time-honored values, awaken a sense of the majesty and glory of life," Ball said.
Ball's own theater career started "accidentally." As an undergraduate majoring in set design at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, he was repeatedly cast in shows, so he switched his major to acting. Later a producer asked him what he should look for in a director for Chekhov's "Ivanov." The response impressed him so he asked Ball to take the job. The Obie award earned by the Off-Broadway production led to a flurry of directing offers.
Then just as Ball was about to leave the nonprofit theater for commercial opportunities, a 26-page college paper he wrote on his vision of regional theater was sent to the Rockefeller Foundation, which Ball says made the offer he couldn't refuse: "Can you make it work? We have a check for $450,000 if you can."
That Ball made it work in the form of the American Conservatory Theatre is history. That he made the word "conservatory," which once meant a music academy, mean a school of theater as well, is a matter of lexicological record. Benjamin Moore, Ball's managing director at ACT for 15 years, speaking from his current office at the Seattle Repertory Theatre where he is managing director, expressed admiration for what he refers to as Bill's "genius. It's thrilling to see him work again." But, at the same time, Moore expressed reservations about Ball's Draconian fund-raising methods that ultimately brought down his reign at ACT and nearly destroyed the company.
According to several sources, Ball's regular approach was to threaten to close the theater or to move it to another city if he didn't get sufficient money. He also refused to work with a conventional board structure; Ball instead set up a national board of trustees that consisted of like-minded professionals and a California Assn. for ACT, which was a fund-raising organization without any governing powers.
"So much of what he wanted to do and how he would do it ran so completely against the grain of a public trust organization," said Moore. "He arrived almost in the wrong century."
Joy Carlin, who started working with Ball as an actress in 1969 and is now associate artistic director of ACT, blames the problems on "bad investments, bad judgment--he was trying to do it all. Now we have business people taking care of business.
"He was a genius. It was his inspiration that started the theater. But 20 years is a long time to maintain that genius or posture. People use the term 'burned out' or 'worn out' and I think that's what happened."
Others like Rick Najera, one of the stars of "Latins Anonymous" and an ACT alum, complain of what Najera calls Ball's "cult of personality." Najera was bothered by Ball's extravagant speeches to the students at ACT about their being "the best and the brightest," and especially the effect such speeches had on an actress who knew that she would be cut from the second-year program along with half of the first-year class--a customary procedure.
"What do you do when all of a sudden you're not the best and the brightest; what does that do to an impressionable head?" Najera said. "This girl tried to commit suicide. It was very tough at ACT."
But Ball does not hear the critical voices. Like Gaev, who found relief from tension once the cherry orchard was lost, Ball describes the loss of the ACT as a helping hand that has brought him to where he says he wants to be--teaching in Los Angeles, writing, directing and acting again. He follows his own advice. He takes chances. Maybe he failed big--even if he won't admit it. But he continues to take chances. He thinks positively. He has ideas about where theater is headed in the '90s. He wants to be a part of it. He believes he is a part of it.
"I feel like I'm beginning a new life," said Ball. "I'm tremendously grateful."