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A trio of classics at American Players Theatre tell stories of three iconic women.

It’s not being advertised as a female-centric season, but the three productions I saw at American Players Theatre this weekend showcase women who have become iconic in contemporary culture. One for being ahead of her time. Another for being behind her time. And still another, who transcends millennia and inspires the political struggles of the 21st Century.

Tim Gittings and Tracy Michelle Arnold Photo by Carissa Dixon

Tim Gittings and Tracy Michelle Arnold. Photo by Carissa Dixon.

As Elia Kazan wrote in his director’s notebook for the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche du Bois is “an emblem of a dying civilization, making its last curlicued and romantic exit.” In APT’s thoughtful production of Streetcar, Director William Brown heightens this effect by moving the action of the play up 15 years, setting it in 1963. That time not only evokes the American optimism of the last few months of the Kennedy Camelot years, as Brown writes in the program, but also sets the story at the dawn of the ‘60s and its social and sexual revolutions. The steamy New Orleans evoked in the first few moments of the production, the teeming street life spilling on to Kevin Depinet’s vibrantly ramshackle setting, suggests the rich give-and-take of the coming decade. And when Stanley Kowalski (Eric Parks) talks to Stella (Cristina Panfilio) about the “colored lights” they see in bed together, we can see they’re the leading edge of changes that will lead to Woodstock and The Joy of Sex.

Into this world walks Blanche (Tracy Michelle Arnold), one of the great tragic characters in American literature. Arnold seems stronger, more solid than the legendary Blanche’s of Jessica Tandy or Vivien Leigh, but this presence adds heft to the idea that Blanche is constantly performing (Kazan writes that the actor should find an entirely different, self-romanticized and self-dramatized character for each of Blanche’s scenes). And Arnold, indeed, seems to strive for this: from the coquetry of her flirtation with Mitch (the impressively solid Tim Gittings) to the matter-of-fact acquiescence behind the heart-rending scene in which she recounts the end of her first marriage.

Director Brown wisely gives Arnold the spotlight here, letting her tell the story without Williams’ prescribed sound effects. While we do get a touch of Williams dreamy audio flashbacks later in the play, Brown obviously wants to emphasize the “realism” in the playwright’s signature “poetic realism.”

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In Kazan’s film, the power of Brando’s presence stole some of Blanche’s thunder and altered the focus of the play. Here, Eric Parks is certainly dynamic, with explosions of anger that rock the stage, but Brown moves Stanley a little further into the background, letting the shifting dynamic between Blanche and Stella become more central to the story. The shattering final scene, then, is not so much Stanley’s brute triumph, but merely the final stroke that separates Stella from her past—from Belle Reve, from family, from the Old South. As the lights fade, Stella who is center stage, racked and shaking with both guilt and fear of what’s to come, as Stanley sidles up to her with their new baby, facing an uncertain future.

The Bennett Women in APT's "Pride and Prejudice" Photo by Carissa Dixon

The Bennet Women in APT’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Photo by Zane Williams.

There’s no uncertainty on Elizabeth Bennet’s horizon at the end of the fizzy and audience pleasing production of Pride and Prejudice, which opened at APT this weekend. Adapted by former Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan (The Rep premiered it in 2009), Jane Austen’s beloved novel gets an elegant and comically rich staging that should make it the centerpiece of APT’s season.

Hanreddy and Sullivan’s adaptation is a technical marvel of compression and narrative economy, but not lacking in wit and heart. And director Tyne Rafaeli—essentially making her debut at a major American stage—uses APT’s outdoor Up the Hill theater with an intelligent and expansive use of the space’s possibility.

It’s a large cast, often arrayed in the satisfying symmetries of ballroom quadrilles, and Rafaeli brings the ceremony into the audience by sending couples down the aisles, and occasionally into the surrounding woods (the story is set, after all, in the English countryside). And as you’d expect from the source material, the supporting players pop with deft comic characterizations. Mrs. Bennet (the peerless Sarah Day) is the mistress of overstatement (mostly relating to the slings and arrows her daughters’ search for husbands), while Mr. Bennet (James Ridge) delivers bon mots worthy of Oscar Wilde, mostly while gathering wood for the household fireplace. There’s plenty of late-teenage voltage coursing through the five women of the Bennet household—even in the resident geek Mary (Else Edelman). And Chris Klopatek, as the earnest Mr. Collins, delivers some well-timed overenthusiasms.

Marcus Truschinski and Kelsey Brennan Photo by Carissa Dixon

Marcus Truschinski and Kelsey Brennan. Photo by Carissa Dixon

The central story, of course, belongs to Elizabeth (Kelsey Brennan) and Mr. Darcy (Marcus Truschinski). There are plenty of hilarious awkward pauses and conversational kerfuffles en route to the heart-tugging romantic denouement, and both actors play their parts with comic perfection. Truschinski—with help from a striking royal blue greatcoat courtesy of costumer Susan E. Mickey—hovers over most of the play with almost vampiric solemnity. Brennan radiates a sparkling warmth that seems to reach beyond the back rows of the theater. It’s no surprise that the long-awaited kiss between the two was greeted with spontaneous, affectless applause—a lovely moment of audience-actor synergy that will likely be repeated often throughout the summer.

Chiké Johnson and LaShawn Banks Photo by Carissa Dixon

Chiké Johnson and LaShawn Banks. Photo by Carissa Dixon

There are no female actors in The Island, which opened last week at APT’s indoor Touchstone Theatre. But the most compelling voice in this 1973 drama–co-written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona–belongs to Antigone, the protagonist of what Fugard calls “the most powerful political play ever written.”

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South African Apartheid is over, but this moving, visceral production unfortunately still resonates with the world of 2015. The story concerns John (LaShawn Banks) and Winston (Chiké Johnson), cellmates who have been sentence to life on South Africa’s notorious Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela served 18 years of his sentence. They talk of their past lives, current hardships and plan and rehearse a performance of the Sophocles play they intend to present at a prisoner gathering.

Inspired by Fugard and Kani’s own struggle to stage Antigone in South Africa, The Island is a stirring tribute to the power of storytelling to address injustice. Director Derrick Sanders invokes the “Black Lives Matter” campaign in his program notes, and the production itself—while never straying from the specifics of apartheid—is far from a historical document. That’s mostly due to the performances by Johnson and Banks. While there is a certain ceremony and iconography in telling a story that has become familiar, the actors here balance the universals with elements of human behavior and truth. Just as Antigone defied the state to stand up for justice (the proper burial of her rebellious brother), the performances in The Island testify to the deep yearning for what is right, and show the results of turning that hope into action.

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