At home on this stage, with this play

The University production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' features magic, charm and a returning director

Tatum Fjerstad

Directors usually have months to prepare for a production. Stephen Kanee had 24 hours.

Kanee, 64, came out of two years of retirement to teach this fall. On the first day of the semester, he discovered he would also be directing the University’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Oh, and auditions were the next day.

In the next 24 hours, he put to use decades of experience with University Theatre, thrust stages and the show itself. This happenstance assignment was surprisingly fitting.

“It all comes full circle,” Kanee said.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Kanee graduated from the University in the early 1970s and was the first student to direct a show in the very theater now housing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

This show, the University Theatre’s second main stage production of its 75th season, is Kanee’s fourth time directing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“I try to never ever repeat myself, because I find some things work with other people that don’t work with new people,” he said. “So this is the collection of the best stuff.”

The stage, too, is old hat. Kanee said he is most comfortable working on intimate thrust stages. He worked for 14 years on the Guthrie’s own thrust stage after he finished his Master of Fine Arts degree in the late 1980s.

Kanee is a shorter man, with a generous face and bright eyes. He wears neatly pressed khakis and long-sleeved, light blue collared shirt. Standing downstage right, he mouths the lines and mimics the expressions his actors perform during rehearsal. He barely leans on his bronze-colored cane.

“It’s been stressful, and after the illness it’s gratifying to know that the brain still works,” Kanee said, “but chastising to see the body run down.”

Almost three years ago, Kanee went in for an appendix operation that led to pneumonia that led to a disease with a very high mortality rate called adult respiratory distress syndrome.

After an unfortunate turn of events, an incredibly fortunate Kanee survived the disease because one doctor, based in St. Paul, invented a treatment for the disease.

“It was a life-changing event,” he said. “One doctor and my wife saved my life.”

That life has looked different to Kanee ever since, he said. Kanee taught what he thought was his last class of his 18-year teaching career two years ago. He moved to Santa Fe, N.M., with his wife, MaryAnn Lippay. But he petitioned to come back to teach this semester.

“The students bring me back. I find them far more stimulating than academics, meetings and paperwork,” Kanee said.

Kris Lencowksi, 25, graduated from the theatre department in 2002 and is playing Peter Quince. It is unusual for an alumnus to perform in a University production. But Lencowski’s return is another way the theatre department is honoring the 75th anniversary.

“It’s really wonderful to be back,” Lencowski said. “The work ethic has improved here; actors are much more respectful of the rehearsal process.”

Lencowski has worked on other productions and is a former student of Kanee’s.

“He’s a great director,” Lencowksi said. “He’s so tactful about what he says that he keeps you inspired and you want to do well just for him.”