By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Aug 25, 2011 at 5:37 AM

Spring Green -- Coming here to see the American Players Theatre stage the classics is among the many joys of being a theater critic in Wisconsin since 1980. I was in the audience on the night Henry Strozier made the first entrance in the first production ("A Midsummer Night's Dream") the company mounted, and I have seen nearly every show the APT has produced since.

A thrilling parade of exceptional actors has crossed the company's stages in 31 years. Many of the best have stayed for long periods of time. This is where outstanding classical actors who focus on the work rather than fame come to live and practice their craft.

With that firmly in mind, I am going to make an audacious assertion. Veteran company member David Daniel is delivering the best performance in APT history this summer.

The play is the seldom produced "The Cure at Troy," Irish poet Seamus Heaney's 1990 adaptation of "Philoctetes," an obscure tragedy written by Sophocles. The production in the APT's indoor Touchstone Theatre sneaked in below the radar here this summer as the company mounted such high profile works as "Blithe Spirit," "The Taming of the Shrew" and "The Glass Menagerie."

"Cure" is the contemporary retelling of the Homeric tale of a Greek archer (Philoctetes) who owns a magical bow and arrows. The arrows never miss their target.

Despite that, Philoctetes is the victim of abandonment on an isolated island by his fellow warriors until Greek military authorities decide they need his weapon in their drawn-out war against Troy. The decent and principled son of Achilles is given the assignment of finding the archer and tricking him into surrendering the bow and arrows.

Heaney is a Nobel Prize-winning poet whose only other play is an adaptation of another of Sophocles' works, "The Burial at Thebes." A native of Northern Ireland, the poet saw his land's endless Catholic-Protestant conflict reflected in the issues raised in "Philoctetes." Although that 20th century situation is never mentioned in the play, a speech Heaney added to the ancient text was frequently quoted when peace was negotiated in Northern Ireland in 1998.

Human nature is the topic here. Can we set aside valid anger and grievances to get on with our lives, or do we wallow in corrosive, self-defeating bitterness?

The end justifying the means and following orders that trouble our conscience are also examined in this vividly engaging two-hour drama.

The APT has found its perfect storm. Heaney's script, dense with ideas but eminently accessible, is elegantly beautiful.

David Daniel, trained in classical theater at the University of Delaware, speaks Heaney's lines with trenchant clarity, passion and authenticity of emotion. Every word counts in his portrayal of the aggrieved Philoctetes.

The 201-seat Touchstone space was built for this style of powerful, intimate and visceral theater. Play, actor and venue flow together into a stunning theatrical experience.

Daniel hits a symphony of varying emotional notes as he carries the production on his back. It all revolves around his ability to touch our hearts and engage our minds, and he does so brilliantly.

Paul Hurley quietly captures the conflicted soul of Achilles' son, assigned by the Greeks to snatch the bow and arrows using whatever guise necessary, and Jonathan Smoots possesses the stern and stalwart demeanor of the unbending military commander, Odysseus. The three person Greek chorus is effectively led by an intense Sarah Day.

APT producing artistic director David Frank, who chose and staged this jewel, placed everyone except Philoctetes in drab modern combat fatigues. That subtly bridges the millennial gap for us.

Up the hill on the APT's outdoor stage, more veteran members of the company's resident acting ensemble are offering an affecting production of John Steinbeck's Depression drama, "Of Mice and Men." Under Kate Buckley's direction, the staging conveys the deflating desperation of the times with human nuance and ambiguity.

Why has the savvy George become unofficial protector and guardian of the dim-witted but ox-strong Lennie? Why is the only female in the story, the ranch boss' new daughter-in-law, hanging around the men's bunkhouse?

James DeVita's George is a skillfully-shaded portrait of an ordinary guy with an altruistic impulse that trumps his frequently thin patience. There is nothing particularly heroic in this George, but DeVita shows us flashes of a decency that can explain his commitment to someone who can't survive on his own.

Brian Mani's physical performance as the hulking Lennie is nicely understated. With an economy of acting, Mani portrays the simple-minded good nature of the man.

Colleen Madden's wistful portrayal of the young wife is an opaque blend of sexuality and loneliness.

Paul Bentzen leads the rest of the excellent cast with a poignantly sculpted Candy, the crippled ranch hand who shares George and Lennie's fantasy of owning a small farm.

"Of Mice and Men" is ultimately about the dreams each of us constructs to get us through the day ... and night. They are often unattainable, but they sustain us when we are desperate. This production gets that.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.