Joseph Adler, the producing artistic director of Coral Gables’ GableStage for its 20 years of existence, directed nearly every production by the company over that time. That he and the troupe were so successful in bringing provocative, compelling stage fare to South Florida can be seen in the 25 Carbonell Award nominations and 11 wins for best director he received during these two decades.
But more than the shows, it is his rambling, passionate pre-show speeches that I will miss the most about Adler. He died Thursday at 79, succumbing to the cancer that so ravaged him in recent years, reducing him to a frail, thin-voiced version of his former booming self.
A lifelong liberal, Adler delighted in greeting each audience and prefacing each show with a few choice tweaks to the political opposition – federal, state or county – often for its stances against the arts, the special interest for which he felt most strongly.
And he would update us on the progress – or lack of same – of GableStage’s efforts to move its operations from the bowels of The Biltmore Hotel to a reconfigured Coconut Grove Playhouse. It was an extended, frustrating process that we long feared he would not see come to fruition, even if he were younger and in better health.
No matter what followed, you got your money’s worth with Adler’s pre-show talks.
The risk-filled, thought-provoking, and occasionally infuriating plays he put on that stage would rival the menu of any resident company in the entire country. Certainly he was unparalleled in South Florida when it came to the plays he put before his audience, not because he felt they would like his selections but because he felt they needed to be exposed to their ideas and unconventional artistry.
Who else in this area would produce such plays as The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Blasted or Cock? And who else would so doggedly pursue such recent Broadway titles as The Humans, Hand to God, Casa Valentina or Mothers & Sons, giving them South Florida premieres that often surpassed their New York versions in sensitivity and quality? For Adler went beyond mere canny play selections to a deft hand at direction that cut to the heart of the playwright’s intent.
Truly new plays were rare at GableStage, but one of the most valued collaborations Adler had was with emerging (and now internationally acclaimed) playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, a Miami native and New World High School graduate whose plays – as the blurb for his first GableStage work put it – “push the boundaries of form, language and sexuality in provocative and poetic ways.”
McCraney’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, set on the eve of the Haitian Revolution against the French, was a co-production of GableStage, New York’s Public Theatre and London’s Royal Shakespeare Company, placing the Coral Gables troupe in heady company indeed.
Adler had a great eye for acting talent as well. He had his pick of the area’s veteran performers, all of whom appeared with regularity on his stage, but it was when he needed young talent or an actor with particular skills that he would come up with a Jackie Rivera, Jason Edelstein, Claire Tyler, Natalia Coego or Wesley Slade. Where others would go to New York for casting challenges, Adler was convinced – and made a believer of others – that the right actor or actress resided locally.
Born in Brooklyn in 1940, Adler moved with his family to Miami when he was a youngster, becoming hooked on theater by attending productions at the Coconut Grove Playhouse and other long-gone area venues. He eventually headed back north for school, studying theater at Carnegie-Mellon University and pursued a graduate degree in film studies at New York University. In the late 1960s, he returned to Florida to make low-budget horror films and forgettable commercials.
But it was the theater that kept drawing him back, as he filled a résumé with freelance directing assignments at New Theatre, Area Stage, Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, Ruth Foreman Theatre, Florida Shakespeare Theatre and, yes, The Coconut Grove Playhouse. In the 1990s, as Florida Shakespeare morphed into GableStage, Adler finally had his own company to express his edgy, political tastes and success followed.
Although he never gave the impression that he measured him success in awards, during his time overseeing GableStage, the company earn some 200 Carbonell nominations – easily a record – and triumphed more than 60 times.
His final production, Arthur Miller’s The Price, was scheduled to open March 21, but, of course, was put on hold by COVID-19. Like the rest of the GableStage season, and all other stage shows here and elsewhere, it awaits the arrival of a “new normal,” a phrase that seems particularly hard to imagine at GableStage without Adler.
Adler is survived by his longtime partner Donna Urban and by his son, Noah, from an earlier marriage. Plans are not yet known for a memorial service, but wherever it is held, parking will be hard to find.