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Friday, November 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  A Few Clouds
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American Players Theatre's Skylight takes an unflinching look at a troubled relationship
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Brian Mani and Greta Wohlrabe in American Players Theatre's <i>Skylight</i>
Brian Mani and Greta Wohlrabe in American Players Theatre's Skylight
Credit:Zane Williams

David Hare's Skylight is one of those plays that fit a dense web of ideas into a seemingly simple package: three characters, one night and morning, one drab London apartment. Yet the unexpected encounters between young teacher Kyra and (separately) her ex-lover's son and the lover himself probe all sorts of questions about moral compromise, value systems, and to what degree we can redeem the past.

Skylight, which opened Sunday night in the indoor Touchstone Theatre at American Players Theatre, is not without humor and hope. But it's unflinching as Kyra and Tom, the successful restaurateur with whom she had a long affair, discuss their shared past and current choices.

Nearly 20 years Kyra's senior, Tom Sargeant is a self-made man who readily accepts the lifestyle his money can buy. Kyra, now teaching in a rough school district, feels he's become out of touch with how most of society lives -- but Tom sees her as sanctimonious and self-flagellating.

The unseen presence in the room on a frigid night is Alice, Tom's wife, who died of cancer a year ago. (The skylight of the title is a gentle nod to the portal through which Alice watched birds in her dying months.) Alice's discovery of the affair was its undoing, severing an unusual setup in which Kyra had lived as virtually a member of Sargeant family.

Greta Wohlrabe, an APT apprentice last year, steps up to a leading role as Kyra and proves herself equal as a sparring partner with APT core company actor Brian Mani. Together, they believably navigate the fundamental compatibility/incompatibility of their characters.

The play was first staged in 1995, and its political aspects have remained relevant. In fact, their relevance has intensified. Here's Kyra's bitter take on business moguls: "The whole of society must get down on their knees and thank them, because they do something they no longer call 'making money.' Now we must call it something much nicer. Now we must call it 'the creation of wealth.'" The similarity to American election-year "job creator" rhetoric is uncanny.

Here in Wisconsin, Tom and Kyra's debates about her teaching career (and, by extension, the value of public employees) also resonate. Yet while Skylight is talky, it mostly avoids becoming didactic. Kyra and Tom are relatable, contemporary people. And as Tom's teenage son, Christopher Sheard injects some goofy sprightliness.

Director John Langs has chosen to update some details in Hare's script (a Cindy Crawford reference is switched to Kim Kardashian) but not others (Yellow Pages does not become Google, and the teen son improbably buys his music on CD rather than download). Those cultural references are secondary, though, to the central conflict of relating -- or trying to -- across sharply differing world views.

After the play, I heard one man talking to his friend about what they'd just seen: "It was smart and political, but with a sense of humanness, too." And that's it precisely: Skylight's appeal lies in Hare's ability to distill larger issues into the individual lives in which they play out.

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