Fittingly, in what has been a crucial political year, among the finest works of theater in San Diego in 2012 explored political themes, from American adventurism in Afghanistan to the shame of World War II internment camps. Issues of race, sexuality and personal identity were also at the forefront of some bold productions that highlighted this year in theater. The best of the best:
Blood and Gifts, La Jolla Playhouse: Everything about this mesmerizing spy story set during the Soviet-Afghan war clicked, beginning with J.T. Rogers' script, which enlightened without preaching. The West Coast premiere directed by Lucie Tiberghien showcased a potent ensemble led by Triney Sandoval and Demosthenes Chrysan, and Kris Stone's dramatic scenic design heightened the tension.
Allegiance, A New American Musical, The Old Globe Theatre: In a year of cerebral and often discomfiting musicals, this world premiere resonates the most deeply. The ignominy of America's World War II internment camps is juxtaposed with the experience of one Japanese- American family in a tale of heartbreak and dignity. Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon) was evocative and note-perfect as the family's matriarchal daughter, and a projection-screen sequence depicting Hiroshima's destruction was chilling.
Kita y Fernanda, Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company: As the privileged daughter in a splintered family of Mexican nationals and the daughter of the household's undocumented Mexican maid, Gabriela Trigo and Cynthia Bastidas bonded poignantly and powerfully in Tanya Saracho's brave 90-minute play, half of which is spoken in Spanish.
A Raisin in the Sun, Moxie Theatre: Yolanda Franklin, Mark Christopher Lawrence and Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson brought eloquence and commitment to Lorraine Hansberry's 53-year-old play about racism, survival and the delicate fabric of family. The Moxie staging by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg was seamless and compelling. Clybourne Park, playwright Bruce Norris' "sequel" to Raisin, opens next month at San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Harmony, Kansas, Diversionary Theatre: In a show that took aim at bigotry in the heartland while entertaining mightily with song, Bill Nelson and Anna K. Jacobs' new musical stood out among Diversionary's 2012 offerings. The whopping 18song score featured a moving all-male-chorus ballad, "Kansas Land," and a sight-gag treat called "I Bring the Snacks." But it was the harmonies of the cast that distinguished this likable and uncompromising production.
The Scottsboro Boys, The Old Globe Theatre: A musical written by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret) and directed by Susan Stroman (The Producers) would normally heighten expectations of a tuneful romp. But Scottsboro Boys, based on the true story of nine black teens who were accused of raping two white women in 1931, was daring, harrowing and decidedly subversive (it's staged as a musical within a minstrel show).
The Car Plays: San Diego, La Jolla Playhouse: This "Without Walls" outing served up intimate theater to say the least. Audience members two at a time were shuttled from one parked car to another outside the Mandell Weiss Theatre and treated to 10-minute scenes staged inside that vehicle. Some were absurdly funny, others desperate or melancholy—but no lemons in the bunch. It was theater at its purest and most inventive.
Parade, Cygnet Theatre: In a year when both actors did themselves proud on many fronts, Sandy Campbell and Brandon Joel Maier turned in especially strong performances in this dark musical about the murder of a child in the 1913 South and its ugly aftermath. A large cast directed by Cygnet's Sean Murray captured not only the pain and rage of the time, but also the humanity that lingered in their midst.
Topdog / Underdog, Ion Theatre: Ion's tiny black-box theater in Hillcrest was the ideal space for an alternately absorbing and claustrophobic production of Suzan-Lori Parks' boardinghouse-room drama. Mark Christopher Lawrence and Laurence Brown were riveting as brothers Lincoln and Booth, whose blood ties and temperaments get severely tested in feats of oneupsmanship.
Zoot Suit, San Diego Repertory Theatre: Kirsten Brandt was the first woman to ever direct Luis Valdez's 1979 play about the Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s in Los Angeles, and she nailed it. Aside from stalwart performances from Lakin Valdez as Henry Reyna and Raul Cardona as the emblematic El Pachuco, this lively Rep staging benefited from a partnership with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts.
Honorable Mention: North Coast Repertory Theatre's Visiting Mr. Green, La Jolla Playhouse's American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose, Moonlight Stage Productions' Fiddler on the Roof, The Old Globe Theatre's God of Carnage and La Jolla Playhouse's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
Rent: Yet another chance to see the musical about young folks struggling to get by in New York City. Presented by the California Youth Conservatory Theatre, it opens Dec. 29 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. lyceumevents.org
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!: A mean ol' beast gets a lesson in kindness when he meets his match in Whoville. Through Dec. 29 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
A Christmas Carole: The live radio play version of the classic tale, adapted by Cygnet Theatre's Sean Murray, is an annual tradition. Through Dec. 30 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. cygnettheatre.com
Christmas on My Mind: Stranded by a snowstorm in a cabin in the woods, some travelers pass the time with singing and storytelling. Through Dec. 30 at Lamb's Players Theatre. lambsplayers.org
Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings: A holiday sequel to the oft-performed musical focused on a 1950s-style singing group that returns from the afterlife after being killed in a traffic accident. Through Dec. 30 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
miXtape: Generation X was torn between disillusionment and hope in this cavalcade of music from the 1980s. Produced by Lamb's Players Theatre, it's on hiatus through the holidays, running again from Jan. 10 through Feb. 17 at the Horton Grand Theatre, Downtown. lambsplayers.org
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net