By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Oct 14, 2010 at 9:02 AM

Most of us spend our lives so far into the woods, we seldom see the trees. The 21st century pace of life does that to us.

So before I address this column's main topic this week, I want to have all of us stop and smell the roses that have bloomed in Milwaukee theaters this fall. I can't remember a local stage season that has started with as many must-see productions in its first six weeks.

I hope you didn't miss the Skylight's "Dames at Sea" and Next Act's "Four Places." Both shows have completed their runs. "Dames at Sea" was delicious theatrical cotton candy, and "Four Places" was quite the opposite -- a trenchant slice of life look at adult siblings attempting to deal with their aging parents' problems.

Don't allow the Milwaukee Rep's outstanding "Cabaret" (closes Oct. 24) to cause you to overlook its stunning production of "My Name is Asher Lev" (Nov. 14) in the black box Stiemke Theater. "Asher Lev" is an intense and compelling exploration of the personal price visionary artists and their families may have to pay to satisfy the burning need to create.

Renaissance Theaterworks' spot-on production of "Reasons to be Pretty" (Oct. 24) also should not be missed. The Neil LaBute drama is a tough and emotionally truthful look at body image and relationship issues in our culture.

The abundance of exceptional theater at the start of the season re-enforces Milwaukee's standing as one of the premiere theater cities in the country. That's the truth folks, and we have the proof.

"Main-Travelled Roads"

The American Folklore Theatre in Door County has been a steady engine of musical theater creativity since the early '90s, and a few of its shows -- "Guys on Ice," "The Bachelor," "Good Night, Irene" and "Lumberjacks in Love" -- have been seen here. But I have been surprised and disappointed that Milwaukee audiences haven't been offered the opportunity to see more of the AFT work.

That makes me pleased that the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre will open "Main-Travelled Roads" at the Broadway Theatre Center tomorrow night. "Roads," which debuted in Door County in 2007, is a typical AFT musical -- folk music style with a Wisconsin connection and generous helpings of poignancy and humor. Its text is based on several short stories written by Hamlin Garland, who was born in 1860 in West Salem, Wis. and grew up on several state farms.

Garland won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1922, but his first success came in 1891 with a collection of farm-related short stories titled "Main-Travelled Roads." The writing team of lyricist-librettist Dave Hudson and composer Paul Libman, who have become frequent contributors to AFT seasons, based their musical of the same name on characters and stories from that anthology. The show won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater.

Chamber Theatre artistic director C. Michael Wright was involved in the early stages of "Main-Travelled Roads'" development when he directed a workshop of it in Madison six years ago. The public was invited to a staged reading as part of the workshop, and Wright told me last week, "it was obvious it needed more work, but the audience was quite clearly engaged, and I could see much potential there."

Wright liked the show enough to keep it in mind as the musical developed, won a major national award and was staged in Door County. He chose to include it in the Chamber's 2010-2011 season, but he isn't directing it here. Wright selected actress and musician Molly Rhode, who performed in the AFT production of "Roads" in 2007, to stage the piece for the Chamber.

Reviewing the Door County production, Green Bay Press Gazette critic Warren Gerds wrote, "Sometimes the characters deal with soulfully sad situations, and sometimes they dance on a fence. At the core, it's about people looking for something we all call love."

Rhode was enthusiastic about "Roads" when she was a member of the AFT cast. "The show has fantastic characters," she said during a rehearsal break last week.

"It is a lovely play, a musical with a lot of content. The stories have a lot of depth and heart, a lot for the actors to dig into. They (the stories) also twist in unpredictable ways.

"The outcomes are very satisfying, but you don't get the end you expect."

"Roads" was AFT's fall show in 2007, which meant it was mounted indoors at the Ephraim Town Hall. The company's much larger summer season is staged outdoors in Peninsula State Park. The town hall was a relatively small space with limited theatrical possibilities.

Rhode now finds herself directing in the much more spacious and theatrically sophisticated Cabot Theatre, but don't expect Broadway pyrotechnics in the Chamber production. The main set piece is fencing that moves during the show to break up the performance space and create many different locales. Just as in the AFT production, actors will mime their use of props.

"That worked really well, and I thought it was a no-brainer," she said. "I wanted to stick with something I knew worked."

The addition of more musical instruments is the biggest change from the AFT to the Chamber Theatre productions. At the Ephraim Town Hall, a sole piano accompanied the actor-singers. Rhode has added a standing bass to the piano -- they will be onstage -- and she is having the actors play guitar, banjo and fiddle.

"Main-Travelled Roads" is a family affair here. Molly Rhode's sister, Alissa Rhode, is the musical director, and her husband, Chase Stoeger, is in the cast. Two of the other three actors, Scott Haden and Clare Arena Haden, are a married couple. Jennifer L. Shine rounds out the cast.

"Main-Travelled Roads" creators Hudson and Libman will discuss the show at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 20 before that evening's performance. The discussion is free.

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.