When Milwaukee actress Angela Iannone came to Madison in spring 1998 to play opera diva Maria Callas in the Madison Rep's production of "Master Class," nobody told her not to bring her four German shepherds.

Iannone eventually knocked everyone out with her performance — one reviewer called it the year's best — but there was the problem at the outset about where Iannone and her canine friends would stay. She had a little terrier, too. A woman with five dogs. The Edgewater? Not likely.

Actually, for those in the know around the Madison theater scene, it wasn't much of a problem.

For nearly a quarter-century now, Sam White and Celia Klehr, playwright and actress, husband and wife, have made their home on North Fair Oaks Avenue a kind of haven for itinerant actors and others involved in the always-impassioned, often under-financed theater world.

It's a home where, to borrow from Hamlet, the play's the thing. But in this instance, the house is the thing, too. Plays have been written and rehearsed at the kitchen table. One night three years ago, a group sitting around that table created a new entity, Forward Theater Company, out of the ashes of the Rep.

Today, Forward is going strong, with several acclaimed productions in the books, and last month, Klehr — one of Forward's founders — agreed to begin a stint as company manager, which among other things means there will once again be regular house guests on North Fair Oaks Avenue.

First up is a Milwaukee actor appearing next month in Forward's production of "44 Plays for 44 Presidents."

"He's warned me he plays the ukulele," Klehr said this week.

At least — presumably — he doesn't bark. Klehr told me the story of Iannone and her German shepherds as we sipped coffee on the home's lovely back deck. She wanted to show me the garage where the dogs stayed. To get to it, we had to walk past what she says is the third largest Butternut tree in the United States. An arborist measured it after the tree was hit by lightning but stayed upright. The trunk, impossibly rotund, has been hugged by any number of not always sober actors.

The home's warmth comes right out of Klehr's personality. She is welcoming and funny. Her default move on meeting people is to want to cook them something. And while Klehr recognizes the humor in that, she has a reverence for the idea of community, and what it means to do theater in a community, that is of a piece with opening the doors of her home. Once you're there, the only obligation is to be interesting, or at least a good listener.

One is not surprised to learn that Klehr and White met doing a play. White is from Madison, a Memorial High graduate. Klehr grew up in Oklahoma but knew Madison from a sabbatical her professor father did here.

In the early 1980s, the Madison Rep was doing Thornton Wilder's "The Long Christmas Dinner." A friend told Klehr she needed to take a role. "There's this guy in it you need to meet."

She was leery of White originally, "but I fell madly in love with his mother." Eventually Sam felt the love, too. They married in 1984 and invited the entire Madison artistic community to a reception at the Memorial Union. Six hundred people showed up. The only requirement was that guests get up on stage at some point and perform. An early pattern was emerging.

White and Klehr raised two daughters who today share an apartment in New York City. In recent years, Klehr has acted less, though she'll have a role in Forward's production of "Good People" next spring.

I asked her something I always had wanted to ask an accomplished actor. Does she ever have the dream — I have it, and I've never acted — where you are on a stage somewhere and don't know your lines?

She said she does — she's always in the forest, about to go on at American Players Theatre — and she doesn't know her lines or even what play she's doing.

Klehr can often hear visiting actors practicing their lines from the upstairs rooms where they stay in her home.

There was a moment with Iannone and her dogs when things got interesting. Actually, it was just after they departed, for Utah and another acting job. The German shepherds made the trip safely, but the little terrier was missing. A frantic call came back to Madison.

Klehr and her daughters immediately searched the house. On an upstairs couch filled with stuffed animals was the answer.

"One of the stuffed animals moved," Klehr said.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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