A Lifetime of "Lear”

Posted September 27, 2016 By Carrie Van Hallgren

King Lear Blog News

APT Managing Director Carrie Van Hallgren reflects on King Lear, a story that's resonated with her since childhood.

The summer before second grade, when I was 6, I begged my parents to take me to King Lear. It was the final play in the season at the Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival in Platteville. I had already seen A Midsummer Night's Dream and School for Scandal. Why couldn't I see King Lear? My mother explained that it would give me nightmares because "someone gets his eyes plucked out." End of discussion.

In protest, I read the play myself, aided by every plot summary or abridged version I could find, and defiantly declared it the best play ever written. Keeping me from it was the ultimate injustice.

So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when my eight-year-old son, receiving the same answer to his request to see APT's King Lear, started reading the play himself, on the backyard swing set, no less.

Beginning in the summer of 1983, when someone asked me to name my favorite play, it was always Lear. Maybe I said that because it was the forbidden fruit of Shakespeare's canon. It might have been because of the killer (quite literally) women's roles, which I fantasized about playing. It might have been because of Kent, a character I loved for his intelligence and his devotion. It might have been simply because of the main plot, which is fairytale-like in its simplicity. A king makes a wish and gets it. And as it goes in so many stories, that wish leads to his downfall.

In the summer of 1989, I noticed that APT was producing King Lear. I had only seen a handful of plays at APT by this time, and just comedies. (We had our own Shakespeare Festival in Platteville, after all.) I figured that if I continued to say Lear was my favorite play, I had better see it onstage. I asked for a ticket for my 13th birthday and my Dad and I drove to Spring Green in the family Volkswagen Rabbit GTI on a Sunday evening in September.

I had never, ever seen anything like Randall Duk Kim's performance in that production of King Lear. Every play I had ever seen before looked like a camp skit in comparison. I had never seen a human being transform as he did onstage. His hands were trembling, as the hands of an old man tremble. I marveled at the wigs, at the costumes, at the story, at the performance. This WAS my favorite play, the APT production confirmed, for all of the reasons I had liked it as a second grader. I remember riding back to Platteville in the dark and cold night, talking about Lear all the way home.

Lear entered my life again ten years later, and again at APT. By this time, I was working on the staff of Milwaukee Rep and dating an APT apprentice. My boss at the Rep was Sandy Ernst and her husband, Lee, played King Lear that summer. Between my then-boyfriend and my Rep colleagues, I had plenty of reasons to see plays at APT, and I watched many that summer. King Lear didn't fail me, and this time I was drawn to Gloucester's story, to Edmund's treachery, and to Edgar's devotion to his father. Goneril and Regan were indeed fierce (Sarah Day and Tracy Michelle Arnold, anyone?) but it was the father-son subplot that fascinated me.

And today, seventeen years after that, I will spend the morning of my 40th birthday watching King Lear at APT with an audience full of high school students. Twenty-seven years after my first Lear experience I will sit on the Hill and witness this story not as an adolescent, or as a young adult, but as a grown woman, a wife and mother of three, a child of aging parents and, as luck would have it, an APT employee.

And this season, for the first time, I experience this play not as an epic legend warning of the dangers of hubris set in a far off country, but as a real life political and domestic tragedy that could happen anywhere. I see people I know in this play, people I love. That foolish, fond old man is my grandfather, my father, and some day, me.

It's been my favorite play since the second grade. It only took 34 years to truly understand why. Could that be the very definition of a classic?