Legendary director JoAnne Akalaitis was struck by an "inner fire" in Joseph Haj when she first met the young man who began his acting career at the Guthrie Theater 26 years ago.

"I have a strong memory of him playing a punk son, cutting through a wall of plastic with a knife," Akalaitis said, recalling his performance in Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth." "He just burst through with all this excellent, authentic energy."

Haj returned to the Guthrie Tuesday, having been asked to bring his dynamism, charisma and deft ability to dismantle barriers as the theater's eighth artistic director.

Though little known in the Twin Cities, Haj is nationally respected as a transformative leader with a zeal for inclusivity and knitting theater into the community. The news that he would succeed Joe Dowling on July 1 has sent a wave of anticipation across the theatrical landscape.

"What's exciting about him taking the helm at the Guthrie is that he's a great national leader and an articulate spokesperson for the field," said Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "He's one of our great thinkers at a time when theater is becoming more responsive to the world in the 21st century."

Almost mythic family story

Interviews with Haj, his family and colleagues describe a man who is passionate and smart, open and welcoming. These traits were incubated in a biography that seems almost fictional.

His parents were born in Palestine in the 1930s — his late father, Fareed, was blind from the age of 4.

"In those days, young people who were handicapped were sent away," said Haj.

His father was institutionalized but caught the attention of a man who recognized an "extraordinary capacity."

"That guy took my father on a journey of a day-and-a-half to his home village and said to his parents: 'This kid can do anything; he doesn't belong with us.'

"My dad would later say, if it wasn't for that one person, he would've lived and died in that institution."

Fareed and his wife, Nadia, would move their family to Paterson, N.J., in the late 1950s — arriving in the United States with $35 and a guide dog. But they bootstrapped their way to improbable success.

"When my father was studying for his Ph.D., he would sit in the New York Public Library and people would come and read to him," Haj said. "To a person, they belonged to the Jewish community. He taught me to measure people not as groups but as individuals. To the extent that it is true that I don't get in stuck in boxes and can see broadly, I really think it's because of my parents."

Fareed earned a doctorate in education and worked with special-needs children in Miami, where the family moved. He imparted to his own children, by instruction and example, "values of work and decency," said James Haj, Joseph's younger brother.

Indeed, the three sons of Fareed and Nadia Haj would become high achievers. James oversees more than 100 schools as an administrator in Miami. Elder son George is Florida-based regional editor-in-chief for a magazine and newspaper chain. Now Joseph, 51, is leaving PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C., to become artistic director of one of the nation's premier regional theaters.

Theater not in the plan

By his own admission, Joseph Haj was "a disaffected and angry student who would rather be at the beach than in class." Then, in his senior year at Miami Sunset Senior High, he took a first-period drama class because he thought he could sleep through it. Instead, it lit a fire in him.

"You know how one teacher can end up being the ignition point for how you live the rest of your life?" he said. "I had that in Mrs. [Barbara] Lowery. Her theater class became an outlet where I could focus my energies."

Lowery, now retired, recalled a student who was "smart, warm and full of this very positive energy."

"I'm sure he's had sad moments, but I don't recall him being down," she said. "He radiated this zest for life."

Lowery's most poignant memory of Haj was his recitation of a Biff Loman monologue from "Death of a Salesman," which impressed her for the young actor's connection to a character who was finding his voice and self.

Haj studied theater at Florida International University and later earned an M.F.A. at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with an eye toward becoming an actor. He moved to New York and soon heard about auditions for the Guthrie Theater.

Akalaitis cast Haj in her epic production of Jean Genet's "The Screens" at the Guthrie in 1989. Haj came to know, by keen observation and association, the artistry of former Guthrie artistic director Garland Wright, Robert Woodruff, Anne Bogart and others. The Guthrie had a deep and lasting impact on him.

"When he took the Chapel Hill job, he said to them that he'd be there for the long haul unless the Guthrie calls," recalled James Haj. "He was half-joking, of course, and didn't know it would happen, but the Guthrie, which he loves so much, has been his lifetime dream."

Becoming a director

Tom Quaintance was a directing intern when he met the young actor at the Guthrie in 1990; they both worked on Shakespeare's history plays and have remained close. Haj was in Quaintance's wedding and the two have worked together often.

"For some people, it's difficult to collaborate and to codirect but not for Joe," said Quaintance, artistic director of Cape Fear Regional Theatre in North Carolina. He described Haj as being able to entertain many ideas at once. "He is gracious and welcoming, not because he agrees with you, but because he has this large capacity."

Haj stretched that comprehensive instinct when he shifted to directing.

"As an actor, I was like a punter on a football team," he said. "It was great but very specialized. I wanted to know more and be part of a larger field of play."

True to his story, his first directing job was unorthodox. He staged Shakespeare's "Henry V" in a prison in the Mojave Desert. Years later, an inmate who saw the bare-bones production called him.

"He was out now, and was working as a production assistant on a TV show," said Haj. "He wanted me to know that that project had saved his life and given it meaning. We go around saying that Shakespeare is for everybody but have the nagging suspicion that notion might not be true. When you get confirmation like that, it's awesome."

Crossing boundaries

Haj will move to the Twin Cities with his wife, Deirdre, who runs the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., and their daughter Samantha, 14.

Deirdre Haj is Jewish.

"We like to tell people we have our own Mideast crisis," he laughed.

More seriously, Haj was part of a trip to Gaza and the West Bank that included theater workshops as well as shows. The trip, organized by director Akalaitis with a party of theater luminaries, took place in the First Intifada.

"We did not represent any political point of view, we just went to do theater in a different place and atmosphere," said Akalaitis. "We all believe, Joe more eloquently than some others, that what we do changes the world."

Haj added that he considers it important to occasionally step out of his professional life and make theater with people outside the business.

"What we do has a deep potential to save people — save lives," he said.

His task at the Guthrie is also to save the theater from a stagnation that has seen attendance fall from 400,000 to less than 360,000 and its budget cut from nearly $29 million to less than $26 million.

"Joe's a deeply articulate organizational leader and a progressive visionary," said James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre. "He also has a terrific sense of humor, is extremely direct but respectful of people and is indefatigable."

He will need all of those qualities as he takes on a dream job that happens to be one of the most challenging in American theater.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390