The year 2015 in San Diego theater—one to remember—challenged the mind, the senses and the heart. Here are the best of the best:
Come From Away, La Jolla Playhouse: No offering in 2015 packed the power and poignancy of this co-production between La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Repertory Theatre. The Playhouse's Christopher Ashley brilliantly directed the world-premiere musical that immersed audiences in the experiences of the passengers of 38 airliners who were forced to land on 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland, and those of the townspeople who cared for them. Spouses Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the show, which deserves a Broadway run someday.
The Twenty-Seventh Man, Old Globe Theatre: Can a performance be a tour de force for three actors at the same time? Such was the case with Hal Linden, Ron Orbach and Robert Dorfman in Nathan Englander's trenchant one-act play about three Soviet Jewish writers—victims of "The Night of the Murdered Poets" under Stalin's regime. Tragic and intelligent, The Twenty-Seventh Man told an all-too-little known story with penetration, nuance and dignity—a rare combination indeed.
The Quality of Life, Intrepid Theatre Company: Another sterling cast—this one featuring Jeffrey Jones, DeAnna Driscoll, Tom Stephenson and Maggie Carney—embraced Jane Anderson's remarkable script with complete commitment, thereby burrowing its messages about lifeís preciousness into our souls. Though the central plot point is that Jones' Neil is dying of cancer and that he and his wife (Driscoll) have decided to "go" together, The Quality of Life was far more searching in what it strived to tell us.
Dogfight, Cygnet Theatre: An "ugliest girl" dance contest betokened psychological and emotional metamorphoses for a young, Vietnam-bound Marine (Patrick Osteen) and the resilient woman (Catie Grady) he regretfully humiliated in Cygnet's engrossing presentation of a play based on a 1991 film that starred River Phoenix. Dogfight's interiority, most dramatically explored by the intuitive Grady, overpowered the specters of the '60s and Vietnam, but its commentary on the personal tolls humans take on each other required no battlefield.
'night, Mother, ion theatre: Disturbing and claustrophobic, Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning (in 1983) drama finds a disconsolate but resolute Jessie (Yolanda Franklin) telling her mother (Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson) of her intention to commit suicide—and she won't be dissuaded. Ion's production in its tiny blackbox theater was awash in tension and the nervous apprehension that accompanies the unspoken questions "When?" and "How?" The answers were at once numbing and shattering.
Twelfth Night, Old Globe Theatre: Director Rebecca Taichman has helmed three of the finest productions seen in San Diego the last year or so, including 2014's Time and the Conways at the Old Globe and this year's Indecent at La Jolla Playhouse. The Taichman-directed Twelfth Night during the Globe's outdoor Summer Shakespeare Festival was beautifully conceived and staged, a showpiece for the scenic design of Riccardo Hernandez and Christopher Akerlind's lighting. If only every Shakespearean comedy done to death could be as sublime as this one was.
Uncanny Valley, San Diego Repertory Theatre: Part of a rotating, four-theater world premiere that included the San Diego Rep, Uncanny Valley demonstrated that a cerebral and cautionary tale with sci-fi trappings needn't be oppressive. Rosina Reynolds starred as a neuroscientist overseeing the transformation of a "non-biological being" into a dying man's body. Nick Cagle shared the stage with the formidable Reynolds and held his own, while the play itself (by Thomas Gibbons) both probed and engaged.
Ojo: The Next Generation of Travel, La Jolla Playhouse WoW Festival: You're blinded by a mask, compelled to rely upon your other senses, then transported everywhere from a Mumbai marketplace to a wild party. Along the way you meet those whose blindness is real and, before the 75-minute journey ends, you "see" what possibly you'd not seen before. This immersive experience, part of La Jolla Playhouse's biannual WoW Festival, was so unforgettable that it must be on this list.
Big Fish, Moonlight Stage Company: Perhaps no production in 2015 was as thoroughly imaginative as Moonlight's Big Fish, a stage musical every bit as worthy as its predecessors—Daniel Wallace's 1998 novel and Tim Burton's 2003 film. The incredible set pieces included a circus, an Old West town, the cave of a giant and a field of daffodils so bright you had to wear shades—well, not really—the Moonlight summer musicals are staged after dark. But this marvelous show boasted tremendous heart, too, welcome at any time of day or night.
Sylvia, New Village Arts Theatre: How popular was this howling production of A.R. Gurneyís play about the codependent relationship between man and dog? So popular that Carlsbad's New Village Arts is bringing it back for a return engagement Jan. 7-24. As the play's eponymous pooch, Samantha Ginn delivered one of the year's choicest comedy turns, while Daren Scott exemplified midlife neurosis with aplomb as Sylvia's owner. NVA's Kristianne Kurner directed this bow-wow evening of escapist entertainment.
Honorable Mention: North Coast Repertory Theatre's Betrayal, Cygnet Theatre's My Fair Lady, La Jolla Playhouse's Indecent and Healing Wars, Old Globe Theatre's In Your Arms.
If/Then: Idina Menzel (Glee, Frozen) stars in this hit Broadway musical that simultaneously follows two distinct storylines about an NYC city planner after a major life decision. Presented by Broadway San Diego, it opens for eight performances Jan. 5 at the Civic Theatre in the Gaslamp. Dec. 26 at the Lyceum Theatre in the Gaslamp. cyctheatre.com