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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
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American Players Theatre's Sarah Day is the pride of Wisconsin
Veteran actress loves it here, and we love her back
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Credit:Stephen Milanowski

One of the beauties of a repertory company like Spring Green's American Players Theatre is learning to identify your favorite cast members and seeing them year after year, in varied roles large and small.

This year, APT's Sarah Day marks 25 seasons with the acclaimed company. She has played everything from the devastated, morphine-addicted mother in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night to countless Shakespearean roles.

Local audiences have also gotten to know her as a member of Forward Theater Company, which launched last year. Day acted in two out of three shows in Forward's first season, including a scene-stealing turn as the daffy mother Luella in Christopher Durang's contemporary political satire Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. She continues to serve as an integral member of Forward's advisory board.

But while regional audiences may know Sarah Day on stage, they probably don't know as much about her as a person. Born and bred in Madison, Day is fiercely proud to call Wisconsin home. That local pride is also a reason that bringing Equity theater to her hometown, via Forward, is so important to her.

Despite setbacks like the destruction of her Spring Green home during the terrible floods of 2008, Day is at the top of her game, bringing to the stage what fellow actor Colleen Madden dubs an "earthy yet intelligent quality." She may be brainy, but she's also an emotional powerhouse.

Meeting Sarah Day for coffee is almost a little startling after having seen her on stage in so many period costumes. Sitting at a small table at the French bakery La Baguette, Day's casually dressed in a zip-up sweatshirt and jeans. Only those big, expressive brown eyes hint at a life in acting.

Says Day forthrightly, "I'm a Madisonian by birth and by rearing." Growing up in the Midvale Heights neighborhood on the near west side, she recounts, "I went to Odana Elementary and Cherokee Junior High, then West High and the UW-Madison."

Day's family was an intellectual one. Her mother, Mary Jane, earned a master's degree in history and taught. Her late father, Roland Day, served on the Wisconsin Supreme Court for 22 years, including a stint as chief justice. Decades prior to his Supreme Court post, Mr. Day had managed the 1954 gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Bill Proxmire.

The family's passion for history and politics almost sent Sarah, an only child, onto a completely different career path. "I went to college thinking my dream job was to be in the diplomatic corps. It sounded glamorous," she smiles.

Day also worked as a page in the state Senate during her first two years at the UW. "I loved seeing politics work," she says.

But a job at Wilson Street East, a now-defunct dinner theater in the Essen Haus' current location, sparked a love of theater. There, she did Funny Girl and many other shows, playing six nights a week for a total of eight shows weekly. "I just loved it. I couldn't have loved it more."

After that, she worked at the Fireside Theater in Fort Atkinson and a theater in Champaign, Ill. Then, after a brief period in Chicago, an acting position came open at APT, and Day's long tenure there began.

Day, 51, knows she's fortunate to make a living in a competitive, often unstable field. "I could start to cry just thinking about it. I know how lucky I am to make my living doing the arts and, with APT, doing the great plays of the world."

David Frank, APT's producing artistic director, feels pretty lucky, too. They've worked together since Frank arrived at APT in late 1991. Says Frank, who will direct Day this year in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, "For all of the intellectual alignment you can do before you go on stage, it's the actor's ability to surprise themselves, the audience, and the director that creates the special magic that you live for. Sarah can do that. Sarah can amaze you, whether it's a comedic insight or whether it be a Chekhovian void or a Greek howl. It's a part of her."

Fellow APT actor Colleen Madden credits Day with helping her discover the appeal of living in southern Wisconsin. Says Madden, "She's so proud to be from Wisconsin. She helped me to see this area - because I came here from New York and thought 'Ho hum, here I am in the Midwest' - as interesting and colorful, with such a history."

Like Day, Madden is an APT core company member who acted in Forward Theater's January production of Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. It provided the two with a chance to get to know each other better.

Madden compares Day's turn as Luella to the skill Gracie Allen brought to the old Burns and Allen routines: "[Sarah] was so funny and so smart. It takes real intelligence to play someone who doesn't seem very smart... you have to have real comic timing."

Working with Forward's advisory company - which selects plays for the season and helps balance the artistic and financial sides - allowed Day to stretch herself behind the scenes as well. "It seemed to open something up for her, some facets she didn't experience before. I have never had so much fun with her," says Madden.

While helping launch Forward Theater Company has been a professional high for Day, she's also had setbacks in recent years. In 2008, severe floods ruined her Spring Green house. "Losing one's home unexpectedly is hard," she admits, "You're a little lost." FEMA bought her out March 1 of this year.

That was also the summer her father died. (Day's love and tremendous intellectual admiration for her father is clear.) Against this backdrop of loss, she starred in a one-woman show at APT, The Desert Queen, written by APT's own Jim DeVita.

"That was a tough one," says Day of summer 2008. It also disrupted her bond with Spring Green, where she'd been involved in numerous organizations: Friends of the Library, the Spring Green Area Arts Coalition, her church and others.

While a fellow APT staffer has provided Day with a guest room in her home, Day resides in Madison these days. "Being part of Forward has been part of the reason I'm in Madison, on some sort of cosmic level."

Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Forward's artistic director, praises Day's willingness to roll up her sleeves and pitch in. "Sarah has been so generous in her approach. Not just finding projects for her to be in, but finding projects she'd be proud to present to Madison as a member of Forward. There are no roles for her this season, but she's one of the strongest advocates for the plays we did choose." These include Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).

Like the Christopher Durang play last season, Ruhl's play - a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year - represents the Midwest premiere of a major new piece.

At APT this summer, Day will tackle roles in All's Well That Ends Well, Another Part of the Forest and Major Barbara (see sidebar for more on APT's lineup).

Talk about Sarah Day to people who know her, and a few themes emerge: an intense commitment to her craft, a sharp mind and down-to-earth Wisconsin pride. Laughs Colleen Madden, "It's so refreshing to have a real person play on the stage. A lot of us have an affliction - we're actors on and off the stage - but Sarah's a real person."

American Players Theatre's 2010 season

This year, APT will produce eight plays, five "up the hill" in the outdoor amphitheater seating 1,148, and three in the intimate, indoor Touchstone Theatre seating roughly 200. Later this year APT will bring its first non-summer production to the Touchstone stage, the original musical The Gift of the Magi (Nov. 26-Dec. 19).

Up the Hill

As You Like It, by William Shakespeare
Opens June 12

Says APT artistic director David Frank of the Bard's pastoral comedy, "You get nervous thinking, 'Oh, I've seen that,' but, at [the actors'] first read-through, as they're picking their way through, you remember what a great play this is." Tim Ocel directs.

All's Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare
Opens June 19

APT last did this play in 2001. Says Frank, "It's a strange, odd play, and [director] John Langs has really taken it boldly by the scruff of the neck. You can't just sit quietly, reverently in front of it." Sarah Day played the Countess last time around; this year, she'll be the Italian widow.

Another Part of the Forest, by Lillian Hellman
Opens June 26

Hellman's 1946 play marks the first production of an American woman playwright at APT. Although written after The Little Foxes, it's a prequel to that play. Says David Frank of Hellman, "Gosh, that woman tells a great story! She makes you fall in love with characters that are quite despicable. [Hellman's] a distinct voice, half Southern gentlewoman and half Jewish New Yorker. What a wonderful mixture." William Brown directs.

The Circle, by W. Somerset Maugham
Opens Aug. 7

James Bohnen directs this tale of two romantic triangles. Lady Kitty left her family 30 years ago, ditching her husband to run off to Italy with Lord Porteous. The now-grown son she abandoned is presently in the midst of a triangle of his own. Do people ever learn from the past?

Major Barbara, by George Bernard Shaw
Opens Aug. 15

Sarah Day will play Lady Britomart, the mother of the title character. APT core company member Colleen Madden will play Salvation Army Major Barbara; says David Frank, who will direct, "Ever since I met Colleen, I've wanted her to play this role." Day calls it "an interesting discourse about blood money received by charity and what really feeds people's souls."

In the Touchstone Theatre

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
Opens June 25

Tickets to Beckett's absurdist classic, directed by Kenneth Albers, have been selling briskly. Jim DeVita, Brian Mani and James Ridge star. If you read it in high school or college, this is your chance to see it handled by the pros.

The Syringa Tree, by Pamela Gien
Opens June 29

Colleen Madden stars in this one-woman show with 24 characters. Taking place in apartheid-era South Africa, it explores the deeply troubling realizations of a privileged white girl growing up in that country. "It's a magnificent piece," says Frank. Madden previously starred in this show - with the same director, C. Michael Wright - for Milwaukee's Renaissance Theatreworks.

Exits and Entrances, by Athol Fugard
Opens Aug. 10

By coincidence, Exits is the second South Africa-themed play in the Touchstone this summer. Fugard grew up there, and his 2004 play explores the relationship between a young playwright and an aging actor. Their friendship spurs questions about art and life. "People forget what an important playwright Fugard is," laments Frank. Kate Buckley directs.

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