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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Susan Shunk is confronted by an angry Paul Hurley, who plays her husband in "The Circle." (PHOTO: Zane Williams)

Classic theater finds modern gems

SPRING GREEN -- If we were to play a word association game with state theater-goers and mentioned the American Players Theatre, it wouldn't take long for Shakespeare to pop up.

The APT was founded on mounting impeccably authentic and faithful-to-the-script productions of the Bard, and the stretch of the Wisconsin River that flows within a half mile of the company's wondrous woods will always have a touch of the Avon. Don't miss the APT's exceptional "As You Like It" this season.

But the company is also earning a reputation for finding and producing modern stage gems that are overlooked by most regional theaters. In the early part of its current season, the APT opened Lillian Hellman's "Another Part of the Forest," an engrossing family drama from 1946. The outdoor production is quite compelling

This month another piece of serious theater about familial issues, W. Somerset Maugham's "The Circle," made its open-air debut here. Indoors, in the year old Touchstone Theatre, South African playwright Athol Fugard's 2004 stage memoir "Exits and Entrances" is a wonderfully appropriate play for the APT to produce, because it eloquently and concisely speaks to what it means to live a creative life. The production is beautifully acted.

Adding "The Circle" and "Exits and Entrances" to the strong class of June openings here, 2010 ranks among the American Players Theatre's finest seasons.

Maugham is only a hazy British literary figure from a bygone era for most of us, but he was a popular and influential dramatist, novelist and short story writer, particularly in the 1920s and '30s. "The Circle" observes two generations of a wealthy English family's struggles with the tension between romantic love and faithful responsibility.

Clive Champion-Cheney's wife, Lady Kitty, ran off with his best friend, a British lord and rising politician. She left their young son Arnold behind.

English divorce laws blocked the lovebirds from legalizing their relationship, the promising political career was ruined, and the couple live in exile in Italy for 30 years before they show up at the Champion-Cheney estate, invited by Kitty's callow daughter-in-law.. The younger woman, Elizabeth, is thinking about emulating Kitty. Filled with a girlish fervor for romance, Elizabeth is tempted to flee a dull and passionless marriage for a union with a young man who flatters and pays attention to her.

"The Circle" offers the opportunity to closely analyze the "grass is always greener" syndrome in wedlock. Asked by her estranged husband to talk reality to the young woman, Kitty has a candid chat with Elizabeth, revealing the social and psychic price an early 20th century English woman paid for choosing to scuttle her marriage in favor of romance.

The play carefully builds to its climax -- Elizabeth's decision. Maugham included abundant humor in his piece, and he did not stack the deck for or against staying the course with a spouse.

Director James Bohnen and his superb cast honor that, maintaining a balance between the characters and keeping us in suspense until the drama's final moments. The young and conflicted Elizabeth is the pivotal role in the play, and Susan Shunk delivers her breakout APT performance portraying her.

Shunk's Elizabeth is likable and even sympathetic as she ponders breaking her marital vows. We are pulling for her to find happiness. But she is head over heels with an immature enthusiasm for infatuation, and we get the sense that if she weren't so gaga over the fellow named Teddy, she would be crazy for someone else.

Marcus Truschinski, who plays Teddy, and Shunk create one of those extended special moments we have come to expect from the APT once or twice a season. They express their attraction for each other, not in a hot and steamy embrace but with a gleeful exuberance that radiates youthful charm.

Lady Kitty was considered a great beauty when she deserted her family 30 years ago, and her decline is supposed to be evident when she returns to the Champion-Cheney manor. Tracy Michelle Arnold made an interesting choice in her portrayal of that.

Rather than display physical slippage, she gives us a character who has clearly undergone decay of the spirit. Kitty has become too loud, too flamboyant and too much of a party animal. We know she is covering something deep and damaging.

The beauty is still there, but it is now distorted by a cheap and gaudy gloss. That makes Lady Kitty a sharp contrast to the comfortable elegance Brian Mani brings to his portrait of her estranged husband, Clive. My bet is that Maugham would have strongly approved.

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