Though Laura Gordon is a familiar sight on Milwaukee stages - she's been a member of Milwaukee Repertory Theater's resident acting company for 18 years now - she's increasingly making her mark behind the scenes as well.
In the last several years, Gordon has begun directing. Madison audiences may remember her production of the quirky, romantic Almost, Maine at Overture Center last spring, or her spare, brilliant Old Times at American Players Theatre in 2009.
As different as those productions were (one a cheerful series of love-related vignettes, the other a tense, inscrutable drama), they showed Gordon's feel for the material and her ability to draw the best from actors - including her husband, APT core company member Jonathan Smoots.
When Going to St. Ives, the latest production from Madison's Forward Theater Company, opens March 3 at Overture's Promenade Hall, theatergoers will have another chance to see Gordon's work.
Lee Blessing's two-character political drama stars Colleen Madden and Olivia Dawson. Madden's a familiar face on regional stages, having been a core company member at American Players Theatre for the last decade. This is her second Forward show, and she's performed with other companies in Madison and Milwaukee. Dawson is a former Madisonian who earned her master's degree in acting at the UW in 2009.
Gordon's acting work energizes her directing, and vice versa. "Every time I direct, I remind myself of something about acting I had forgotten," she says. "They bounce off of each other in a really great way. My perspective as an actor helps me work with other actors.... I recognize the breadth of what actors can do, and I like to encourage that."
In this case, the two sides of Gordon's theatrical brain will really be engaged - she played the role of Dr. Cora Gage, a British ophthalmologist, two years ago in a production of Going to St. Ives staged by Milwaukee's Next Act Theatre.
The play's heart is the relationship between Cora and May N'Kame, the mother of a ruthless African dictator. (While May's country is never specified, we might imagine it to be like Uganda under Idi Amin.)
May travels to St. Ives, a snug, safe little town outside of Cambridge, England, to receive sight-saving treatment from Cora. Things quickly become much more complex when Cora asks a political favor of May, and May asks for something quite surprising in return. Cora wants the release of colleagues being held in Africa, and May wants help ridding her nation of her murderous son. Stakes are high, and both women face grave ethical dilemmas.
In case that sounds like a dreary political treatise, here's Gordon's take: "Lee Blessing takes these issues and brings them down to the extremely personal and the extremely accessible, so we can learn about ourselves and the world without feeling like you're reading a big Newsweek article.
"You experience two mothers dealing with some really challenging issues, and it's a human story about women figuring out who they are, what they've become, and their place in the world. It's moving and, at times, very funny."
In several respects, the play is a lot like Blessing's A Walk in the Woods, which Madison Repertory Theatre staged in 2005. Woods is a two-character play that deals with global themes through a single relationship - in that case, between an American and a Soviet diplomat at the height of the Cold War.
The men's interactions take place far from the negotiating table, though. Instead, they meet at a park bench in the woods outside of Geneva.
As the playwright himself has described it in the press, St. Ives was his response to the question, why don't you write these sorts of roles for women? And just as in Woods, the geopolitical events the audience must consider are conjured up in our minds, not enacted before the audience.
Says Gordon, "It's kind of rare that you come across a play that has two such extraordinary roles for women and the subject matter is so provocative and challenging."
A two-person play presents a particular set of challenges for the performers. The show hinges entirely on their dynamic and whether the audience finds it believable, compelling and illuminating. And to hold our attention, that dynamic must not remain static; we've got to see how the push-pull between the women drives the story.
Colleen Madden had seen Gordon play the doctor role in Milwaukee. "I was really moved by it," she says. But in getting ready to inhabit the role herself, she realized that it raised thorny questions for her - which gave her all the more reason to do it.
"When I first read the script, there was enough about it that I didn't quite grasp," she says. "Why do these women need each other? Why do they stay in the room? If it were me, I would have left, would have severed the conversation. I thought, this is an interesting challenge. They do actually need something from each other."
Madden admits that working with Gordon as a director is another element that attracted her to Going to St. Ives. "She'll help me to grow. I feel like she helps actors be brave."
Dawson also looks forward to the chance to dive into a meaty role. In fact, she'd auditioned for Next Act's production in Milwaukee in 2009 but didn't get the part.
"It's great to be able to do it this time," she says with a smile after the initial rehearsal, which takes place on a frigid day in early February. Gordon and her two actors meet for an initial read-through of the script in Fitchburg, at a commercial space donated for one year by Sara Investment Real Estate.
"I'm like a kid on the first day of school," says Dawson. "I'm amped."
Theatergoers may remember Dawson from Madison Rep's 2007 production of Samm-Art Williams' Home, about the turbulent journey of an African American man from the 1950s to the 1970s. Playing multiple characters, Dawson showed an ability to rapidly and skillfully shift from one persona to the next.
A native of Joliet, Ill., she's been living and working in Chicago recently, but is thrilled to be back in Madison and working with Forward. "I feel really comfortable here," she says. "The artist community is really a community here."
"I had a funny feeling that I would like Olivia before I even met her," says Madden of Dawson. "Right away, I felt comfortable with her. She didn't feel like a stranger, and she was wonderful in the reading. In a two-person play, you don't want to be the best, and you don't want to be the worst. You want a partner. You don't want to feel like you're steering the show, or holding the show back, and I've been in both those situations before."
The task for Gordon is to help her two actors to fully develop their characters and their unlikely, evolving bond. While there are no easy answers to the moral questions in the play, "What's most important is arriving at the truth, the truth of these women," says the director.
Richard Ganoung, a local actor and Forward advisory company member, suggested staging St. Ives. He's also assistant-directing under Gordon. "To paraphrase Lily Tomlin, the art happens in the audience, not on stage," he says of the new production.
That thought is especially apt for this play. Though we feel the emotional weight of terrible things that have happened, and continue to happen, they're not blatantly tossed in front of our faces, or reenacted. Instead, Madden and Dawson must lead the audience to experience these emotions while they indulge in the safe, oh-so-civilized ritual of drinking tea - or, as May jokingly calls it, "the one essential body fluid of the English."
Forward Theater's fortunes look to be on the rise.
The company's recent monologue festival, The Love That Changed My Life, was popular enough that an additional show was added. And in a move to simplify operations, Forward has applied to be one of the Overture Center's resident companies and join current residents including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Opera and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Following the 2009 demise of Madison Repertory Theatre, Children's Theater of Madison is the only theater resident.
It will be some time before Forward organizers learn whether or not its application is successful, and the process is complicated in part by the restructuring and upcoming shift in management of the Overture Center. But things look promising.
"Our application was very enthusiastically received," says the theater's artistic director, Jennifer Uphoff Gray. Advantages to being a resident company include easier scheduling and a simplified relationship with Overture's box office.
Also on the rise is Laura Gordon herself. Although the directing half of her career began fairly recently, she's quickly become in-demand. Her Milwaukee Rep production of the mystery Speaking in Tongues is currently running, and she's on tap to direct two Shakespeare plays. This summer, she'll helm Twelfth Night for Optimist Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park program at Alverno College in Milwaukee. In the fall, she'll head out west for The Winter's Tale at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
It's a jam-packed but satisfying time for Gordon, 50, who lives in Shorewood with Smoots. "We're both longing to have time off at the same time," she says. "When I have time off, he's working and vice versa. But it's kind of wonderful to be in a partnership with someone who understands what you do."
For Gordon, though, any inconveniences of scheduling are outweighed by the rewards of her new craft. "When I'm working as an actor, I never feel that what I do is particularly brave," she says. "But when I'm directing actors and I watch them work, I admire the gumption, the bravery, the boldness and the vulnerability that they bring to the work. It's great to be able to watch actors work."