By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Oct 03, 2016 at 1:03 PM

David Mamet wrote "A Life in the Theatre" almost 40 years ago, created and almost always interpreted as a penetrating look at what it means to be on stage.

The production that opened at The Alchemist Theatre, however, is much more than just a play about life in the theater. Under the direction of Jill Anna Ponasik, this production is as much about life itself, not just about making your living on a theatrical stage.

Ponasik is the spunky artistic director of the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, and this is the first play she’s ever directed that doesn’t have music. But it is kind of like telling her to coach an NBA game for the first time and giving her Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the starting lineup.

At her disposal, she has James Pickering, one of the legendary names in Milwaukee theater, and David Sapiro, less legendary but still an actor with an overflow of talent.

The story takes place on a stage designed with incredible imagination by Aaron Kopec: a backstage storage area with all the costumes and props one would ever need. Pickering plays Robert, an accomplished older actor who is in the full winter of his career; Sapiro plays John, the newcomer who is sharing a series of roles on the stage of a repertory company.  

The two actors' story spins in scenes ranging from backstage sessions both pre and post show and scenes of a variety of plays in the company: a war scene, a "Les Miserables" scene, a doctor scene and others. Some of the scenes are as short as a couple of lines, and they trace the development – and disintegration – of this relationship.

The journey through all of these begins with Robert as the obvious and willing mentor to John and John the obvious and willing mentee to Robert. It’s clear at the start that Robert’s mentoring is as much about treating his insecurities and his fears of the ending of a career he so loves.

As the world of these two continues to evolve, Robert becomes ever more pointed in what he believes is mentoring but turns into criticism. John becomes ever more resistant and then resentful of the administrations of this species who has no place in John’s world of today.

True to life about the theater, there is both humor and pathos in the lives of these two actors. They are, in turn, lonely, jealous, exhilarated, depressed, eager and reluctant.

Robert leads a solitary life, and his work onstage has become an easy world to surround himself with both people and character. His world is full of make-believe and declining rapture. As he sees things slipping away, he strikes out in hopes to replace the crown that’s fallen from his head.

John brims with confidence and gratitude to Robert and has a life outside the theater that fills him with interest and joys unknown to his partner. His growth as an actor is mirrored by his growth in a determination that he, and he alone, understands what works best under the lights.

If you are a theater person, this play will be an absolute delight, with countless inside jokes and tales. But this production is so much more than just a story about actors.

Ponasik has found the the conveyor belt of life and has two actors who deliver performances for the ages. The ascent of the young and the gradual disappearance of the old. The important becomes unimportant, and the naive become the sophisticated.

It could just as easily be a story about a business or a sports team or about anything where the generational shift seems to happen with a studied regularity.

So don’t let the title of the play throw you off. This may well have been a story about life itself, not just in the theater.

"A Life in the Theatre" runs through Oct. 15 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

Production Credits: Director, Jill Anna Ponasik; Stage Manager, Jim Padovano; Set, Graphic and Sound Design, Aaron Kopec; Lighting Design, Antishadows; Theater Manager, Erica Case.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.