Two days before opening night of "The Lost Colony," Tony-award winning designer William Ivey Long was still working on costumes. They were all brand new, but had to look very, very old.
"The Lost Colony" tells the true story of an English settlement founded in 1587 on North Carolina's Outer Banks whose colonists mysteriously disappeared.
And so, Long was at it with cheese graters and rasps, aging the costumes that he and his staff had created. The costumes were made to replace more than 1,000 outfits destroyed in a fire last fall at the Waterside Theatre in Manteo, not far from the site of the original colony on Roanoke Island.
"This has been the greatest challenge and, for me, the greatest assignment of my entire life," said Long.
It seems implausible that work on a regional outdoor drama could top the five Tonys that Long has won for his costume work in "Hairspray," "Grey Gardens," "The Producers," "Crazy for You," and "Nine."
But Long, who donated his time and labor to "The Lost Colony," has been affiliated with the show his entire life. His father was technical director for "The Lost Colony," and Long was 8 when he first performed as a colonist boy. He dyed and mottled the clothes himself before moving on to tear the sleeves, hems and, for the men, the knees, to age the clothes the colonists wear in the final scenes before they disappear.
The settlers left a single tantalizing clue to their fate: the word "CROATOAN," which was the name of a local tribe, carved on a tree.
"The Lost Colony" production, which has been performed at the Waterside since 1937, bills itself as the nation's longest-running symphonic outdoor drama. Producer Carl V. Curnutte said the show was bound to return despite last year's blaze, which caused more than $2.7 million in damage. The cause of the fire remains undetermined.
"We've had a lot of challenges, but one thing I know about 'The Lost Colony': After 71 years, we've seen all the tough times, and it will continue to go on," said Curnutte. "It's bigger than gas prices and everything else."
Curnutte said that advance ticket sales were up as high as 17 percent because of publicity about the new production, but sales have since declined. He blamed the slow economy, a wildfire that billowed smoke over Eastern North Carolina for much of June, and hot weather following the show's May 30 opening.
"People are waiting until the last minute to buy their tickets," he said.
Curnutte credited Long's work with helping to reinvigorate the production. "He's a genius. He is definitely one of the world's modern masters. It's just remarkable what he's brought to our stage"
Long and his New York-based staff spent the month of May at the production's costume shop, but many others also helped recreate what was lost. The state of North Carolina and the National Park Service each donated $500,000, and various groups also raised money at small fundraisers with titles such as "Dimes for Drama" and "Cookies for Colonists." HBO donated fabric and other items from its "John Adams" miniseries; more items came from the set of a movie about a jazz musician, Buddy Bolden, that was filmed in Wilmington.
The costumes and props aren't the only new parts of the drama. About 80 percent of the scenery is new, courtesy of a family gift. And a new director, Robert Richmond, has changed the staging to involve more of the audience.
Richmond also combined the roles of the narrator and Sir Walter Raleigh, the English nobleman who dispatched the colonists long before Jamestown was founded and the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Raleigh now tells the story and appears in every scene.
"It got a standing ovation opening night," said Curnutte. "The feedback we're getting is that it's one of the best shows that has ever graced the Waterside Theatre."