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August 30, 2013

TT: A Wisconsin tragedy

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I file the first of two dispatches from Wisconsin's American Players Theatre. This week I report on the company's productions of All My Sons, Antony and Cleopatra, and Dickens in America. Here's an excerpt.

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5213b53e7d6c1.preview-620.jpg"All My Sons," the 1947 play in which Arthur Miller told the tragic tale of a small-town family that has lived with lies for too long, isn't a masterpiece--it's too preachy for that--but it's written with an uncomplicated plainness that makes much of Miller's later work, "Death of a Salesman" included, sound overwrought by comparison. Do it naturalistically and straightforwardly and you can't miss. Add a pinch of understated imagination and the results will be even better. William Brown's American Players Theatre production scores big on both counts, and also features a superior cast led by Jonathan Smoots and Sarah Day, two veteran members of APT's permanent core ensemble who outdo themselves this time around.

What makes their performances so striking is the doubleness of character that they suggest. Mr. Smoots plays Joe Keller, a factory-owning wartime profiteer whose corner-cutting, which led to the deaths of 21 American pilots, is about to be unmasked. On the surface he's an ingratiating back-slapper, but scratch his good cheer and you'll find stark terror. Not so Kate (Ms. Day), his wife, whose grandmotherly exterior conceals a Medea-like hardness of soul that is nothing short of terrifying....

521391d54ffbc.preview-620.jpgSmall-cast Shakespeare stagings are very much the fashion these days, and Kate Buckley's "Antony and Cleopatra" is one of the best I've seen, a seven-actor chamber adaptation by Ms. Buckley and James DeVita in which everything peripheral to the central relationship between the title characters (incisively played by Mr. DeVita and Tracy Michelle Arnold) has been ruthlessly and creatively stripped away. What emerges from the cutting is a terse, tightly focused parable of the power--and price--of physical obsession....

Mr. DeVita, it turns out, is as good a playwright as he is an actor. His "Dickens in America," for instance, is a one-man show in the style of Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight!" whose conceit is ingenious: The audience is invited to imagine that it's present at Charles Dickens' last public reading of excerpts from his novels, in the course of which he interpolates reminiscences that are shadowed by his awareness of his fast-approaching death. James Ridge is a slender, sprightly Dickens...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted August 30, 2013 12:00 AM

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