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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 39.0° F  Fair
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Madison Rep's Richard Corley had his work cut out for him

Madison Rep was always a step up.

If I learned anything during my tenure as a theater critic here at Isthmus, which ended a couple of years ago, I learned to look forward to reviewing plays at Madison Repertory Theatre, whose artistic director, Richard Corley, is leaving after this season. The company's board of directors has declined to renew his contract.

Under Corley's guidance, Madison Rep has staged plays that largely were better acted, designed and directed than any other Madison company's. That doesn't mean every Rep production was an aesthetic success, but as a critic I was always grateful for the shows' sheer professionalism, which let me judge them on their artistic merits. I may not always have agreed with the choices, but they seemed like thoughtful choices.

All that professionalism came at a cost, of course. As Isthmus reported two weeks ago, "Rep board president David Hackworthy says that Corley is being let go because his artistic vision was no longer matching up with Rep finances."

It's depressing news, because by modern theatrical standards, Madison Rep's productions haven't been especially lavish. There are no helicopters, no auditorium-sized roller rinks. And although the Rep's schedule has featured artistically challenging productions over the years, Corley has overseen plenty of audience-pleasing fare as well, like a 2004 staging of the feel-good Tuesdays With Morrie. But these efforts apparently weren't enough.

Corley was particularly enthusiastic about a series devoted to great American plays and playwrights, and it indeed seemed a promising way to get people to buy tickets: stage beloved old warhorses like Our Town and Death of a Salesman, but do so with enough care to make viewers forget the dreary high-school auditoriums where these works are still staged.

In pre-show talks, in program notes, in interviews, Corley again and again made the case that American playwrights -- Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder -- have written world-class plays whose reputations are diminished only by the fact that they are so familiar. Corley's productions of their plays were not radical rethinkings, nor did they need to be. They were memorable, and I'm glad I saw them.

I'm still haunted by Jim DeVita as a drunk with a horrible secret in A Moon for the Misbegotten, by André DeShields as a mischievous, ominous Stage Manager in Our Town, by sad Carrie Coon in Anna Christie. These plays should have brought people in droves. I guess they didn't, or at least not in big enough droves.

I was curious to see where Corley would take the series next. Maybe a play by August Wilson, or Tennessee Williams? He loved them both.

But we'll never know.

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