Before that happened, this happened

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The best time to attend a Peninsula Players outdoor production is the last performance. But that makes offering a review a challenge, because who wants to read that they missed a chance to see a real gem?

For readers who live beyond the reach of Door County, Wisconsin, the Players are a professional theater troupe who produce four shows every summer in their renowned Theater in the Garden just south of Fish Creek, plus a fall production in the friendly confines of Door Community Auditorium.

The outdoor shows – which are actually staged inside a wonderful pavilion so rainouts are no longer an issue – usually take place at 8 p.m. (7:30 p.m. Sundays), but the last performance is a 4 p.m. matinee, which allows budding geezers like me to get home by sunset even though we live an hour away (my home county is a looong peninsula).

And so we attended the July 2 final performance of “The Actuary,” arriving an hour early so we could stroll through the garden, enjoy the view of the water, and watch other theater goers nurse their glass of wine or two before the show.

“The Actuary,” a world premiere for the Players written by Steven Peterson (”Affluence,” “The Invasion of Skokie”), was a pure delight. Three couples – an older pair, their daughter and her husband, and the younger couple’s best man and maid of honor – are gathered in the living room to open a sealed envelope that contains the gender of the baby to be born to the daughter in a few days, a “baby shower bombshell.” When it’s time for the big reveal, the letter inside has one other big surprise.

From there Peterson’s script moves backward in time, as Ed the actuary (the male half of the aforementioned older couple) keeps remembering that what happened in the scene just witnessed is best understood if you knew what happened earlier, until we reach the wedding day nine months earlier.

Greg Vinkler, the Players’ artistic director, played Ed to perfection – a gentle and good man is what may be perceived as a boring profession but one where a knack with numbers and an ability to project the future are essential. Vinkler, a superb actor who is one of Door County’s gems when he is not charming audiences in Chicago and other regional stages, brought a perfect blend of seeming befuddlement and real fatherly love to the role. The rest of the cast was also perfect, but Vinkler especially shines.

Scenic designer Sarah Ross also deserves mention for a clever bisected set that moved in and out (and left and right!) to accommodate the scene changes – and occasional moments when the scene unfolded over two rooms. With a background that suggested the machinery of a clock, the set was almost a seventh character.

All of this does not help you, the reader, except that as other professional and community theaters discover Peterson’s wonderful tale, I urge you to seek out those performances. It’s a clever, heartwarming and beautiful story and well worth the experience.

The final performance matinees give the Players’ crew a few additional precious hours to break down the set and start moving in a new one, because one production wraps Sunday and the next production opens Wednesday.

And here I can help you, dear reader, because the Players are still playing. Red and I have attended perhaps a dozen productions over the years, and we have always been delighted. So pick a show or two among the four yet to come this summer, get your tickets and prepare yourself for an amazing evening:

Now through July 23: “Peter and the Starcatcher,” described as “a hilarious swashbuckling and adult magical prequel to Peter Pan.”

July 26-Aug. 13: “The Bridges of Madison County” – “A ravishingly beautiful and lush Tony Award-winning musical based on the best-selling novel.”

Aug. 16-Sept. 2: “Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime,” based on an Oscar Wilde story – Lord Arthur’s future mother-in-law insists that he have his palm read to determine his suitability to marry her daughter, but the palm reader informs him that he is destined to commit a murder. So he decides to go ahead and get the murder out of the way.

Sept. 6-Oct. 15: “Almost, Maine” (indoors) – “ Hearts are broken, but the bruises heal, and the hearts mend – almost – in this delightful midwinter night’s dream.”

Go ahead to and order some tickets. You know you want to.