2013 in Philly theater: The year of the actor

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 24, 2013

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Best of the best: James Ijames (left), pictured with Chancellor Dean, was an absolute scene-stealer in "The Importance of Being Earnest." (Photo by Jill McCorkel)

Theater may be known as the collaborative art, but over the past 12 months, it was the individual performer who took Philadelphia stages by storm. An abundance of jaw-dropping performances in a striking variety of local productions indubitably made 2013 the Year of the Actor.

All of these terrific portrayals didn’t just spring out of thin air. Decades ago, Philly was viewed by promising actors as nothing more than a well-situated stepping stone toward a booming career in New York. But now? Philly could perhaps be considered the most actor-friendly city in America.

One reason for the city’s huge stable of talent: the absurdly overwhelming competition to land an acting job in Manhattan. While New York City has far more theater productions than Philly, the competition for those roles is intense, and more actors spend time waiting tables and tending bar than appearing in front of the footlights.

A more important factor that emerged in the early 1990s—and thankfully, still remains—is the relative affordability of Philadelphia housing. For the price of a tiny apartment in Manhattan, young actors can rent an entire house here. Trained at the esteemed theater programs at Villanova, Temple, Arcadia, University of Arts and the area’s other first-rate colleges, smart and talented actors have flooded the city, much to the benefit of local theater lovers.

Of course, to keep the good ones here, there have to be an abundance of productions in which they can effectively show their skills on stage. African-American actors can sometimes struggle to find parts in major Philadelphia productions, but 2013 was notable for the welcome number of plays featuring racial and ethnic minorities. The Walnut Street Theatre scored a big hit with In the Heights, the vibrant musical by Philadelphian Quiara Alegria Hudes about life in New York City’s largely-Latino Washington Heights neighborhood. Among the top productions that provided meaty roles for African-American actors was InterAct Theatre Company’s Permanent Collection and their fall staging of We Are Proud to Present; Philadelphia Theatre Company’s sharp and insightful presentation of the Martin Luther King Jr. memory play The Mountaintop; Azuka Theatre’s Fringe sleeper hit Dutch Masters; Arden Theatre Company’s family drama Stick Fly and Simpatico Theatre Project’s marvelous The Brothers Size.

The area’s top performances were led by James Ijames, who was wonderfully lively as the deliciously named Algernon Moncrieff in Mauckingbird Theatre Company’s colorful production of The Importance of Being Earnest. The busy Ijames was equally impressive as the beleaguered Clov in the Arden’s Endgame and turned in an impressive job as the director of Simpatico’s The Brothers Size. Among the many other excellent performances from black actors were the mesmerizing Akeem Davis in the aforementioned The Brothers Size; newcomer Brandon Pierce in Dutch Masters; the fabulous Derrick Cobey in Arden Theatre Company’s massively entertaining musical Parade; Frank X, Lynette R. Freeman and Karen Vicks in Permanent Collection; Sekou Laidlow as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in The Mountaintop, and U.R., who delivered a fiery, thoughtful performance in the Arden’s Stick Fly, deservedly a box-office smash.

In addition to the excellent solo performances, 2013 was also notable for the number of strong ensemble casts. Among the top ensembles of the year was the magnificent group of actors assembled by talented director Adrienne Mackey in Swim Pony’s brilliant The Ballad of Joe Hill, which played to sold-out audiences at the Eastern State Penitentiary as part of the exciting 2013 Fringe Festival. Other notable ensembles included the Arden’s large cast musicals A Little Night Music and Parade; Lantern Theater Company’s Heroes and The Beauty Queen of Leenane director James J. Christy’s marvelously theatrical The Woman in Black at Act II Playhouse; Theatre Exile’s raucous The North Plan; the Arden’s Stick Fly; Walnut Street’s In the Heights, and Bristol Riverside Theatre’s surprisingly involving staging of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

There were so many terrific performances over the course of the year that it was impossible to limit the citations to the usual 10-best list. Therefore, we’ve assembled a list of the 13 finest performances we witnessed on a Philadelphia-area stage in 2013. If 2014 comes anywhere near as close, it too will be a very good year.



Beth Dixon, 4000 Miles

Peter DeLaurier, Heroes

Jered McLenigan, The Woman in Black

Scott Greer, Endgame

James Ijames, The Importance of Being Earnest

Derrick Cobey, Parade

Mary Martello, The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Megan Bellwoar, The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Jenni Putney, Venus in Fur

Rufus Collins, Seminar

Karen Peakes, A Little Night Music

Russ Widdall, Frost/Nixon

U. R., Stick Fly

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