By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published May 26, 2011 at 9:02 AM

SPRING GREEN – In Noel Coward's evergreen comedy "Blithe Spirit," a novelist's deceased first wife comes back to haunt him in an attempt to cause trouble in his second marriage. The play is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its world premiere in London, and the American Players Theatre is mounting it on the company's outdoor stage in Spring Green this summer.

Life comes close to imitating art in the production. James DeVita plays the writer, and during his offstage hours he has written several novels for young adults.

As the APT's leading man, DeVita worked with actress Deborah Staples as his leading lady before she concentrated her career exclusively on the Milwaukee Rep. To a great extent, she was replaced as DeVita's main stage squeeze by actress Colleen Madden.

After a 10-year absence, Staples is returning to the APT this summer, and she will join DeVita and Madden onstage in "Blithe Spirit." She will play the meddlesome first wife while Madden portrays spouse No. 2. Could casting be more delicious than that?

APT producing artistic director David Frank is ecstatic to have Staples back in his acting stable. "She is brilliant," he said during a chat in his office this week.

"Some of Deb's performances here are etched in my mind forever. And she has fit right back into the company as if she had never been away."

In addition to playing Elvira in "Blithe Spirit," Staples will portray Ariel in "The Tempest" and several roles in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 18th century satire, "The Critic."

The actress, who has given birth to two daughters since she last worked at the APT, called her return to the company "joyous." "All of the planets aligned to make this happen," she added.

A change in how the Milwaukee Rep configures its season is allowing Staples to maintain her membership in that resident ensemble while working the full summer and fall at the APT. Rep production runs now vary greatly in length, and artistic director Mark Clements is encouraging his company actors to also perform elsewhere.

Staples' daughters, who are 8 and 3, will join her in Spring Green when school is out. "There are so many families with children in this company, and we are looking forward to being a part of that," she said.

Although the actress was seen in fewer Rep productions than usual last season, she worked the same number of weeks, a function of the longer runs some shows now receive. "I am entirely committed to being a company member there," she said.

The APT's "Blithe Spirit" will also be notable for the return of Susan Sweeney to the professional stage after an absence of 15 years. Sweeney established herself as one of the country's leading voice, text and dialect coaches while she was on the faculty of the old Professional Theatre Training Program at UWM, and she also occasionally acted in Milwaukee, mostly with the Chamber Theatre.

When Sanford Robbins took nearly all of his PTTP faculty to the University of Delaware in the late '80s, Sweeney went with him, and she and her late husband, Bill Leach, spent summers acting at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. She has been running the masters of fine arts in acting program at UW-Madison, and for the last eight years she has been coaching the APT actors in voice, text and dialects. Now she is joining them to play the wacky medium, Madame Arcati, in "Blithe Spirit."

"With 15 years of not being onstage, it is lovely to try it out again," she said. "I am exploring. At my age, who are the characters I play and what have I learned in life?"

This is David Frank's 20th season of leading the artistic side of the APT, and he is quite sanguine about its present condition and future. The company weathered the big recession without its finances falling into the red, and advance ticket sales for this season are running about 8% ahead of the same time last year.

The capital fund raising drive to obtain slightly more than $5 million for the indoor Touchstone Theatre and a combination rehearsal-storage-production facility is extremely close to completion.

Last winter's experiment at staging a holiday show in the Touchstone was a huge box office success. The original musical, "The Gift of Magi," will return for the 2011 holidays, with some artistic nips and tucks from the show's creators, composer Josh Schmidt and librettist James DeVita.

"It's a good time for this theater," Frank said. "No one knows what the new normal is for earned income for arts groups after the economic crunch. I think the worst is over."

One indicator of economic activity is the number of people who stay overnight in the Spring Green area after seeing an APT show. That figure fell but rebounded to 38% of the audience last season.

Frank said the APT is going to take a pause on further expansion and devote its attention to bolstering artistic resources. The company avoided financial trouble by trimming positions and cutting expenses during the recession, and the reductions included the size of the acting company. Ensemble size is now back to pre-recession numbers, and other creative areas are going to be beefed up.

"We stretched our people very thin," Frank said. "People were very tired. You can't expect that to go on forever.

"We are going to make investments in our long-term esthetic goals."

Here are a few additional points of interest about the approaching season, which officially opens with "The Taming of the Shrew" June 11:

The APT production of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" will feature James DeVita and Brian Mani as the displaced migrant ranch workers George and Lennie. DeVita and Mani have been close friends since their days in the UWM Professional Theatre Training Program in the 1980s.

Freelance director Aaron Posner is making his APT debut staging "The Glass Menagerie" in the Touchstone Theatre. Posner directed – and wrote the adaptation for – the Milwaukee Rep's stunning "My Name is Asher Lev" last fall. He will return to the Rep to direct "To Kill a Mockingbird" next January.

APT regulars will remember actress Carey Cannon. She left the stage before last season to become the APT's company manager, and she returns in that role this year. Cannon reports that she does not miss acting, but we miss her.

Check out the full APT season here.

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.