Once more into the journalistic breach: Rescuing Spring Green, Wis. from the 'Tribune'

August 30, 2011

This weekend's Chicago Tribune travel section contained a piece about a trip to Spring Green, Wis.--and if the married reporters' capabilities are truly reflected in this piece, it's no wonder the paper is circling the drain. Spring Green has only three attractions, and they are hardly of equal value; but the article gives one-third to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin home and studio, one-third to the bizarre accumulation of crap that styles itself the House on the Rock, and one-third to the excellent American Players Theatre. And, because the format of the article compared the current experience to that of the couple 25 years ago, when all was said and done the author had only one sentence to spare for the two plays she and her husband had seen. Actually, even that's false: she had only one sentence to spare for the entire playgoing experience, including the fact that the hill is steep, the weather was hot, and the air-conditioning and toilets work in the new downhill theater. I suspect much the same could be said of any storefront theater in Chicago. So the article leaves hanging the very question it purports to answer: Why go to Spring Green?

But, as ever, I'm here to correct to errors of the wayward press (when not making them myself). So here's a quick-and-dirty on a weekend in Spring Green--worth knowing about because the activities in the area continue through mid-October. First, the plays: I saw Crime & Punishment (as adapted by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus), and though it was inevitably different from the world premiere version I'd seen at Writers' Theatre it did not suffer by comparison. Raskolnikov was played by Chicagoan Matt Schwader, who did us proud, managing the wild and constant changes of direction in the mood and morals of this young law student. And the pair of Milwaukee actors who play all the other roles in Dostoevsky's magnum opus are equally capable. James Ridge shone as Porfiry, the inspector who plays with Raskolnikov like a spider preparing his dinner, and Colleen Madden achieved the nearly-impossible task of making whore-with-heart-of-gold Sonia into a real person. She also ably distinguished between the murdered old pawnbroker and her murdered old sister, a non-trivial task.

And until this very second, writing these reviews, I had no idea that the protean Ms. Madden also plays Ruth, the brittle, infuriated and put-upon living wife in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. She's terrific in that role, as well, and gets as good as she gives from Deborah Staples as Elvira the other wife--charming, predatory and dead--who comes back invisibly to torment her. As husband Charles, Jim DeVita is the flywheel who makes this tricycle go. The show looks gorgeous, with a spare but elegant set laid against a spider-webby drop which goes perfectly with Elvira's pale limbs and grasping fingers. Blithe Spirit, in my opinion, is the best of the Cowards, and APT has given it the best of productions.

Meanwhile, the town of Spring Green itself is virtually dead, so we stayed in Mineral Point, about 15 miles the other side of the APT grounds. Mineral Point is like Galena, being an old lead-mining town which reinvented itself; but instead of Galena's antiques, Mineral Point offers fine crafts--pottery and fiber arts in particular. The quality is as high as in the galleries of Door County but the cost is considerably less. There are small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts galore (which you'll need, as Spring Green has fewer and fewer hostelries), an old-style cafe serving Cornish pasties (The Red Rooster Inn) and a couple of "high-end restaurants" whose prices, again, are easier on the wallet than equivalent fare in other resort areas, or in Chicago.

"Spring Green"--meaning the entire concept, outdoor summer theater in a beautiful and interesting setting--was wonderful 25 years ago--like the Tribune reporters, I was there. But today the theater is orders of magnitude stronger, and the environment richer and more charming. Of how many fondly-remembered things can one say that?