Photo by Daren Scott
Deborah Gilmour-Smyth and Robert Smyth (center) in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
The past year brought both fresh revivals of classics and bold new works to San Diego stages. Here is the best in local theater in 2016:
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Intrepid Theatre Company: We lost one of America's great playwrights, Edward Albee, just a couple of months ago when he passed away at 88. How fitting, then, that a production of Albee's premier work tops this list. Under the keen direction of Christy Yael-Cox, Robert Smyth and Deborah Gilmour Smyth delivered un-self-conscious and unforgettable performances as boozing, battling marrieds George and Martha.
Way Downriver, North Coast Repertory Theatre: With sensitivity and complexity, Richard Baird completely inhabited the role of convict Willard Akins in a remarkable play by Edward Morgan, adapted from a William Faulkner short story. North Coast Rep's production, atmospheric and rich with texture and thoughtful metaphor, is one of the finest ever staged in the Solana Beach space.
Our Lady of Kibeho, Moxie Theatre: Three college girls' claim to have been visited by the Virgin Mary in the Rwandan town of Kibeho in 1981-82—a true story—was the premise for this stirring production. Moxie's Jennifer Eve Thorn directed a lively ensemble that included Cashae Monya, Tyrah Hunter and Mallory Johnson as the three girls, Yolanda Franklin as a disbelieving nun and Vimel Sephus as a kind but conflicted priest.
Seminar, InnerMission Productions: No one-act play this year was more entertaining than InnerMission's staging of Theresa Rebeck's indictment of ego and hyper-intellectualism. The titular seminar found four aspiring novelists at the mercy of a verbally treacherous teacher (Jonathan Sachs), with results that were consistently and admirably surprising. Seminar may well have scared off any MFA program applicants in its audiences.
The Boy Who Danced on Air, Diversionary Theatre: World-premiere musicals in these parts were rare in 2016, but The Boy Who Danced on Air was one of them, and it was a rare production indeed. The brutality of the Afghani tradition of Bacha Bazi, in which young boys are essentially sold into sexual slavery, was the backdrop for a mesmerizing tale that defied the ugliness with supple music and choreography.
Junk: The Golden Age of Debt, La Jolla Playhouse: The first of two plays by the gifted Ayad Akhtar on this list, Junk: The Golden Age of Debt (clunky title) unfolded at whip-cracking speed on a multi-tiered set occupied by characters possessed of more greed than conscience. In retrospect, you have to wonder if the rapacious powerbrokers of the '80s invoked here so memorably might be reincarnated in the Trump era that awaits us.
October Sky, Old Globe Theatre: If there's a candidate for a trip to Broadway down the road it was October Sky, which had its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe. Game as the sweeping cast was, this musical's stars were every bit as much set designer Kevin Depinet and the technical team that produced the gasp-inducing amateur-rocket launches. October Sky's surfeit of sentiment did not detract from what was a big-time theater experience.
Disgraced, San Diego Repertory Theatre: Anyone who caught the volatile drama by Ayad Akhtar this fall can tell you why it won the Pulitzer Prize three years ago. The probing question of cultural assimilation and politics at their most proprietary combined to ignite the damnedest dinner party on local stages all year. Thanks to a stellar cast at the Rep (and director Michael Arabian) the emotion of Akhtar's play was never swallowed up in polemics.
Gypsy: A Musical Fable, Cygnet Theatre: Some Broadway staples—Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, West Side Story and Gypsy—never get old. Cygnet's summertime production was a reminder of how rousing this classic can be. Linda Libby's indefatigable Mama Rose was equaled by Allison Spratt-Pearce's Louise-turned-Gypsy Rose Lee, whose transformation benefited from the sexiest costuming and choreography this side of Minsky's Burlesque.
The Normal Heart, ion theatre: This revival of Larry Kramer's 1985 play about the panic and paranoia that accompanied the emergence of AIDS in America was part history lesson, part taut human tragedy. In the central role of gay activist Ned Weeks, Claudio Raygoza channeled not only the anguish of one man, but that of many. In ion theatre's little blackbox space, The Normal Heart beat loudly as a reminder of what was and is.
Honorable Mention: La Jolla Playhouse's The Bitter Game, Lamb's Players Theatre's The Miracle Worker, ion theatre's Lydia, Scripps Ranch Theatre's Vanya, Sonya, Masha and Spike; SDSU's The Drowsy Chaperone.