As an actor, Don Walker has notched his fair share of romantic comedies and merry musicals. He knows people generally like happy endings and big chorus numbers at curtain call.
Yet, one of the most memorable characters he ever played was certainly no song-and-dance man.
In 1991, the actor played one-half of a murderous, incestuous couple in the twisted Ira Levin thriller, “Veronica’s Room,” at the Venice Little Theatre.
The part still gives him goose bumps.
“It’s fun to put on a mask and not be you sometimes,” Walker says. “It’s a treat and a challenge, even if the material is dark.”
This explains why the actor signed on to direct his first show in Sarasota: the sobering Apartheid-era drama, “A Lesson from Aloes,” which opens June 28, at the Banyan Theater Company.
Penned by critically acclaimed playwright and author Athol Fugard (“Tsotsi”), the play is set in 1963 South Africa and ripe with political unrest, oppression, betrayal, sanity and madness.
Originally written for African audiences, it was first performed in 1978 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and opened two years later at Yale Repertory Theater with James Earl Jones as its star.
Now it’s kicking off the Banyan’s 2012 summer season.
“I’m a little nervous,” Walker says of the play. “I’m working with a script that deals with hard, depressing things. No one wants to leave the theater feeling sad. What I’m doing right now is finding the hopefulness in it. There’s always something to be hopeful about.”
Mild-mannered and genial, Walker, 69, at first seems like he’s too easy going to call the shots on such an intense play. But as anyone whose seen the actor at work can attest, Walker can deliver a story like he’s lived it 100 times.
“He was the right guy for me,” says Banyan’s executive director, Jerry Finn. “This is a challenging play. It’s the kind of play that needs a very sensitive approach in terms of characterization. I have a lot of confidence in Don’s sense of style and his ability to analyze. He’s very incisive.”
Two seasons ago, the Banyan cast Walker in a lead role in “The Drawer Boy.” The following year, the company gave him the part of Becky’s earnest, blue-collar husband in “Becky’s New Car.”
“Of course, I was thrilled,” Walker says. “I think of (Banyan) as a major professional theater.”
A father to three adult sons and grandfather to eight, Walker grew up in Oklahoma, in a family he describes as “totally loving and non-dysfunctional.”
A born storyteller, he decided somewhere between his junior and senior years of high school that he wanted to become an actor. His mother suggested he study art, instead.
“She knew I was good at it and she figured I could make a better living as an artist than as an actor,” Walker chuckles.
He never made a living doing either.
Three years into his art degree at the University of Oklahoma, Walker switched his major to drama. He was already performing in most of the college’s shows, anyway.
By his senior year, he had nailed an audition to attend the graduate program at Yale School of Drama, an opportunity that would bring him closer to New York City, where he hoped to one day work on Broadway.
“I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven,” he says.
He remembers in the fall of 1966 driving to New Haven, Conn., newly married and in awe of the changing leaves, the staid brick buildings and clean green lawns.
Many of his Yale classmates would later go on to get work in Hollywood. Among them, Talia Shire, who played Adrianna in all five “Rocky” movies, and actor Ken Howard, who currently serves as the president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Walker, however, would never graduate from Yale. During his first year in the program his wife gave birth to their first son, forcing Walker to drop out of grad school and get a full-time job.
The decision, though bittersweet, still stings.
“I gave up something really big,” Walker says. “I couldn’t see a play for a long time after that. It was years before I even stepped foot in a theater.”
That all changed in the late 1980s, when Walker, then a widower, moved to Sarasota with the company for which he still works — World Precision Instruments, a medical equipment manufacturer — and decided to audition for a part in “Murder on the Nile” at The Players Theatre.
“I was grateful I had long pants on that day because my knees were shaking so bad,” he says.
He didn’t get the part, but he would go on to get many more at professional and community theaters from Venice to Anna Maria Island, often alongside his second wife, Jenny Aldrich, whom he met on the set of “Veronica’s Room” and secretly married during their run of “Rumors” at the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre.
In short, he’s spent the past two decades on stage in Sarasota making up for lost time. And, now, thanks to roles in “The Life of Galileo” and “Twelve Angry Men,” Walker can add the Asolo Repertory Theatre to his list of credits.
In the fall, he’ll appear on the Asolo Rep stage again, this time as Dr. Lyman Hall in the Frank Galati-directed musical, “1776.” He’s growing his hair out for the part in hopes that he won’t have to wear a wig.
“I think the fact that I’m an actor is what will make me a good director,” Walker says. “I know how actors feel and think. I know how gently nudging someone in a certain direction generally works better than bossing them around.”
He runs a hand through his salt-and-pepper mop and says he’s still waiting to hear if Galati approves the ’do.
“I’m actually in a pretty nice position right now, if you think about it,” Walker says. “I’m directing equity actors at a company with a reputation for producing great theater … ”
And in the fall he’ll sign the Declaration of Independence on stage at the Asolo Rep.
IF YOU GO
The Banyan Theater Company will perform “A Lesson from Aloes”
WHEN: June 28 to July 15
WHERE: The Jane B. Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts
STARRING: Ron Bobb-Semple, Sara Morsey and Peter Thomasson
For tickets, call 351-2808.