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Arthur Miller gem brought to life by forest to be reckoned with

THEATER REVIEW: 'All My Sons' and 'Antony and Cleopatra' at American Players Theatre

Chris Jones

4:52 PM CDT, August 18, 2013

SPRING GREEN, Wis. --

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Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," the remarkable 1947 drama that both understands the flaws of ordinary little men and howls with moral outrage at their consequences, usually plays out on AstroTurf, under a fake theatrical sun.

But on Saturday night in the verdant forests of southwest Wisconsin, real fireflies danced in Joe and Kate Keller's backyard, and, as their son Chris Keller came to see the truth about his father, real bats hovered ominously in the air. When neighbor Frank Lubey declared there to be "not a cloud in the sky," he spoke a literal truth. And — at one eye-popping moment during the Saturday opening night of Chicago director William Brown's beautiful, emotional production up here at American Players Theatre — a small plane spluttered through the evening sky while, on stage, talk turned to cracked airplane cylinder heads, cover-ups and American sons flying home from war on a wing and a prayer.

The revelations of alfresco Shakespeare — King Lear railing against real thunderclouds, and the like — are familiar to regulars here. But even though the Miller play is set entirely outdoors, who has ever seen "All My Sons" staged in a forest? Heck, the last time I saw this play was in Midtown Manhattan with Katie Holmes strutting across the stage. Nothing Prairie-style about that.

Yet, especially as it now passes from its original context into the broader poetic possibilities of history, the language of Miller, in this play at least, feels as if it belongs among Midwest fireflies: especially on a design from Kevin Depinet that suggests that suburban backyards are just one manifestation of our hapless attempt to fight off primal self-regard and become part of a dubious community of tree-planters and guttersnipes.

In this production, the storm that fells the memorial tree, a real tree, of the Kellers' dead son Larry looks like it could swoop in again at any time, taking any one of us out, as the Prairie is always ready to reclaim those who build thereupon. There's also something about the outdoors that really intensifies a potent line like the simple comment made by Ann Deever (played by the no-nonsense Kelsey Brennan, who is beautifully costumed throughout by Rachel Anne Healy), a woman who has come to believe that life will disappoint, and that anyone you marry comes with baggage.

"Those dear, dead days beyond recall," she says suddenly of her childhood, staring off into the illuminated trees. All around me, people were exhaling air, as if of their innocent youth. A rare, you-can-taste-it moment like that makes the construction on I-90 entirely worth enduring.

Brown has made one small adjustment to the text, switching from the small Ohio town of Miller's original setting to Wisconsin, which, given the proximity now to "Minnesota nice," only drills down further into the play's dissection of small-town values. Kate Keller, played with the right mix of denial and pain by Sarah Day, a star here, sports a North Woods accent and yet no peace. One gleans a more urban timber from Jonathan Smoots' craggy, desperate Joe — as if he learned his trade, and his love of expedient practicality, on the streets of Chicago. Smoots does not forge a sentimental man but rather a scrappy, streetwise figure, now clinging to the arms of his hard-earned lawn chair like it might collapse under him at any moment. The impulse that explains his crime is there from the start. His son Chris (Marcus Truschinski) is like a helpless combination of his parents, a legacy with which many sons are familiar.

Such a night. Brown, whose formidable directorial gifts are fully on display, does have an Achilles' heel in his love of lush filmic underscoring, which, along with an occasional inclination to round one edge too many or hold a few tableaux too long, adds an unnecessary saccharine quality and feels especially cloying here given that the natural world is already doing all that work for him. The most remarkable performance in a superbly acted production actually comes not from one of the leads but from Rob Fagin, who plays George Deever, the young guy betrayed by those he loved as a child. Fagin, a hugely talented Chicago actor who has not worked in these woods before, comes up with a man consumed by anger and melancholy, old beyond his years.

It is rather as if Miller himself had wandered, confused, into these woods.

American Players Theatre, which, for its main stage, needlessly runs a-feared from anything written after World War II, should bring both Fagin and Miller back. And it should ponder a few of the American playwrights who followed Mr. Miller. The contemporary repertory is full of dramas that will pulse with new life among trees, wildflowers and blood-sucking mosquitoes.

Even the indoor space here, known as the Touchstone Theatre, communes with nature, being a barnlike structure that's a nod to the nearby Taliesin campus, spiritual home of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright, who fell in love with the wife of a client only to see her murdered in a terrible fire down the road from this theater, was not exactly a Mark Antony, even if he searched long and hard for an Oak Park version of Cleopatra.

On Saturday afternoon, Kate Buckley's unplugged, seven-actor version of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" opened in the Touchstone. Buckley, a well-regarded Chicago director and teacher of classical works who exited the city for a gig in academia, was always known in Chicago for the specificity of her text work. You can see that strength here, especially in the performance of James Ridge, perhaps the best classical actor in the entire state of Wisconsin.

Ridge is not cast as Antony — that's James DeVita, no slouch, opposite Tracy Arnold, ditto. I was never fully convinced of these lovers' passion, beyond the first half-hour of lovemaking, and the requisite gilded element to their infatuations seems underexplored. This Cleo feels very down to earth, which can't be the full story. Then again, Arnold and her director perchance took as their text the truth that Cleopatra, stereotypes notwithstanding, should not be defined as a seductress. She is far more.

It's Ridge, playing Enobarbus, who gets to tell us about Cleo's myriad assets in that famous speech about the Egyptian queen in the golden barge, and it's Ridge who gets to wax lyrical on her ability to resist being withered by time. Both such speeches are so overexposed they tend to sound pat on any actor's lips.

Fortunately, the Shakespearean text seems to arrive in Ridge's head (he has a nerdy, nebbish look) rather like an unanticipated express train on the CTA Red Line. He's amazed, stunned, and then he jumps quickly on board with the rush of new kinetic sensation. In other words, Ridge knows how to make you believe he's making it all up fresh, in the moment, finding the metaphors anew.

His work with Buckley here (matched by Abbey Siegworth, who plays Charmian) is just remarkable, meaning that this well-worth-seeing show feels like a kind of "Downton Abbey" take on the great drama. The juiciest bits come not from the passions of those in charge but from those who hold their robes: admiring, hating, lusting in the Wisconsin air.

American Players Theatre is in Spring Green, Wis., about a 3 1/2-hour drive from Chicago. For details on schedules, prices and the other productions this summer and fall, visit americanplayers.org or call 608-508-2361. The season runs through Oct. 20.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib