Peter Rock of Portland, Ore., Pam Blanchard of Tampa, Fla., and Carol Fiedler of Montreal love the theater, but they aren’t spending their summer in London, New York or Los Angeles.
Instead, they’re joining more than 80,000 ticket holders who are bound for Door County in eastern Wisconsin, where, this summer and fall, the play’s the thing.
Lake Michigan to the east and Green Bay to the west frame this limestone peninsula, a 4½-hour drive north of Chicago. The woodsy peninsula is named for a nearby treacherous strait — Porte des Morts, or Death’s Door, which claimed more than 60 vessels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Today, the Door Peninsula peacefully coexists with farms and cherry orchards, secluded coves and rocky promontories scattered among such towns as Fish Creek, Sister Bay and Egg Harbor.
It also has four excellent professional theater companies producing a compelling array of shows. Add 300 miles of shoreline, the county’s small towns and laid-back islands and it’s nirvana for anyone who wants to blend the great outdoors with unique theater experiences.
“Don’t come here expecting touring bus and truck shows,” said Brian Kelsey, managing director of Peninsula Players, an Equity theater that has a cast and crew of 60. “Our original dramas and revivals draw fans from across the country and abroad. People schedule their vacations here based on show preferences.”
Indeed, the theater scene is one of the best reasons to head for America’s heartland for a summer or fall vacation.
Last year my wife, Marty, and I kicked off a weeklong holiday with a visit here to see “The Comedy of Errors” and “Much Ado About Nothing” at Door Shakespeare. Impressed, we canceled the rest of our plans for the second part of a vacation elsewhere and stayed to catch up with an array of classics, Broadway hits, funny Wisconsin-themed shows and even a production of “Shinbone Alley,” Mel Brooks’ 1957 musical.
Washington’s choppers, Gershwin musical
Drawing a creative team and acting talent from the Midwest, London’s West End, Broadway and Los Angeles, Door County’s theater scene is the centerpiece of a destination that draws repeat fans to the Peninsula Players, America’s oldest summer repertory theater; Northern Sky Theater, known for its hilarious and touching Wisconsin-themed musicals; innovative year-round Third Avenue Playhouse; and Door Shakespeare, which is all about the Bard.
This season, theatergoers may choose a revival at Third Avenue Playhouse of George Gershwin’s 1919 musical “La La Lucille,” Northern Sky’s “family farming hit” “Dairy Heirs,” Peninsula Players’ “George’s Washington’s Teeth” (billed as “false teeth, false history and genuine laughter”) and Door Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
As a bonus, Door Shakespeare patrons can enjoy pre-show wine nights paired with small plates prepared by popular local chefs. Peninsula Players has its own beer garden. At Northern Sky, post-show marshmallow roasts are coupled with actor talk-backs.
It’s affordable entertainment. These shows are offered for as little as $22, an alternative to spending hundreds for Broadway’s latest Tony winners.
Another plus, said Rock, a novelist and college professor, is educational. “I can send my daughter to Door Shakespeare’s Camp Will, where the great actors we see on stage at night double as her camp counselors during the day,” he said.
Blanchard, a retired teacher, travels from Florida each summer to catch shows at Northern Sky, “where the whole company makes you feel like family,” she said.
Fiedler has no problem choosing shows here over Broadway or Stratford, England. “Building an entire set around a towering maple tree is quite an accomplishment,” she said of Door Shakespeare’s production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the second play the company will perform this summer. “From ‘King Lear’ to ‘Comedy of Errors’ the staging and acting [are] fantastic.”
Putting your plans in place
Before making reservations, take a look at the theater and festival schedules. Door Shakespeare and Northern Sky rotate the same shows all season. Third Avenue Playhouse and Peninsula Players run one at a time, so get those tickets first, then add other nights for other productions you want to see.
Once those are nailed down, you can begin planning your days. Because all four theaters are close to Door County treasures such as Newport State Park, the featured artists at Edgewood Orchard Galleries at Fish Creek and lakeshore bike trails, it’s easy to combine theater with local outings.
Day trips to neighboring Washington Island, population 718, are an easy way to step back in time to a less-hurried world. This 35-square-mile getaway is a five-mile ferry ride from Northport. It boasts one of the Midwest’s largest lavender farms, great salmon fishing and a beautiful beach at Percy Johnson Park.
Thanks to the absence of light pollution, this is also a good place to stargaze or to try to catch the northern lights.
Given this lineup: To be in Door County? Definitely better than not to be.
IF YOU GO
THE BEST WAY TO DOOR COUNTY, WIS.
From LAX, American, Delta, Alaska and United offer connecting service (change of planes) to Green Bay, Wis. Restricted round-trip airfare from $449, including taxes and fees. Green Bay is about 45 minutes from Sturgeon Bay. You may get a better deal flying to Milwaukee, a three-hour drive from the peninsula.
WHERE TO STAY
Blacksmith Inn, 8152 State Highway 57, Baileys Harbor, Wis.; (920) 839-9222. This bed and breakfast on the quieter Lake Michigan side of the Door Peninsula features private balconies with marine views. Doubles begin at $255.
Landmark Resort, 4929 Landmark Drive, Egg Harbor, Wis.; (920) 868-3205. This all-suite hotel offers a choice of wood or water views. One-bedroom suites begin at $135.
Holiday Music Motel, 30 N. 1st Ave., Sturgeon Bay, Wis.; (920) 743- 5571. With live music, songwriting retreats and a radio station broadcasting music written on site, the Holiday offers environmentally friendly double rooms beginning at $89.
WHERE TO EAT
Shoreline Restaurant, 12747 Highway 42, Gills Rock, Wis.; (920) 854-2950. Overlooking Green Bay, this seafood restaurant offers complete dinner entrees $15 to $30.
Wickman House, 11976 Mink River Road, Ellison Bay, Wis.; (920) 854-3305. A country inn setting with key ingredients sourced in a backyard garden, the Wickman focuses on seafood, organic chicken, and steaks. Entrees $15 to $47.
Island Fever, 6301 Highway 57, Jacksonport, Wis.; (920) 823-2700. Great fish tacos in the wood-paneled dining room or on the deck are featured on a menu that blends Mexican fare with an extensive seafood menu and sandwiches. Entrees $9.95 to $26.95
DOOR COUNTY PROFESSIONAL THEATERS
Door Shakespeare, (920) 839-1500
Third Avenue Playhouse, (920) 743-1760
Peninsula Players, (920) 868-3287
Northern Sky Theater, (920) 854-6117
TO LEARN MORE