A season of surprises: That’s how to best describe the area theater landscape in 2013-14. From the plays and characters to the subject matter and venues, local stages were a humming haven of unpredictability. And more notably, the year saw a significant increase in productions featuring African-Americans and those in which women, rather than men, were the focus of attention. Here’s our list of the season’s best productions.
Stick Fly, Arden Theatre Company. No show better exemplified the focus on black characters than the Arden’s swing-for-the-fences staging of Lydia Diamond’s acclaimed drama, capturing a wealthy family with a smashing Martha’s Vineyard home who prove that money can’t buy happiness, regardless of one’s race. Directed with keen insight by Walter Dallas, the onetime head of Freedom Theatre, and featuring a near-flawless ensemble cast, Stick Fly confronted issues of racism, sexism and infidelity in a production that managed to be both extremely smart and loads of fun.
Mary Stuart, Philadelphia Artists Collective. This distaff revolution provided a showcase for local actresses, who delivered a bevy of nuanced and memorable performances. Topping the list of productions led by powerful women was Philadelphia Artists Collective’s impeccable staging of Friedrich Schiller’s rarely performed drama, which featured towering performances by Charlotte Northeast and Krista Apple-Hodge.
Skin and Bone, Azuka Theatre. Jacqueline Goldfinger, Philadelphia’s finest female playwright, returned to her southern Gothic roots with this wonderfully depraved affair. A unique blend of the most terrible and tender sides of human behavior, Skin and Bone was a collision between Arsenic and Old Lace and The Dukes of Hazzard. Under Allison Heishman’s direction, Maureen Torsney-Weir and the hugely underrated Drucie McDaniel portrayed two sisters with more grit and vigor than many male characters could muster.
The Ballad of Joe Hill, Swim Pony Performing Arts. Women made a big splash in the director’s chair this year, too. Adrienne Mackey, artistic director of Swim Pony, used her considerable talents to bring to life the story of Joe Hill, a union organizer sentenced to death for murder on the most circumstantial of evidence. Staged in a long, narrow passageway deep within the bowels of Eastern State Penitentiary, the haunting production utilized folk music, superbly physical acting and a garish brand of vaudeville to tell the tale superbly.
Pay Up, Pig Iron Theatre Company. Performed on an entire floor of the Asian Arts Initiative, Pig Iron Theatre Company’s revival of their hit show at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival considers the role money plays in contemporary society. Shrewdly directed by Dan Rothenberg, the more recent Pay Up is more impactful than in its previous incarnation, effectively exploiting our insecurities about money.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Philadelphia Theatre Company. Set in what’s described as “a lovely farmhouse in Bucks County,” Christopher Durang’s play focused on three middle-aged siblings, all of whom are clearly inspired by like-named characters in Chekhov plays. James J. Christy’s subtle direction allowed his marvelous cast to shine, culling terrific performances from Grace Gonglewski, Deirdre Madigan and especially Kraig Swartz, who was wonderful as an idealistic gay man surrounded by fascinating women.
Three Sisters, Arden Theatre Company. Arden artistic director Terrence J. Nolen’s riveting take on Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece took an impressively original approach—and featured dazzling scenic design by Eugene Lee. Again, it was the women who commanded our attention, with strong performances from Rebecca Gibel as the domineering Natasha, Katherine Powell as the troubled Masha, and Sarah Sanford as the eldest sister Olga, a sensitive but determined woman who accepts her life of unfulfilled desires with steely resolve.
The Woman in Black, Act II Playhouse. Driven by spectacular sound effects, atmospheric lighting, innovative direction and superstar-caliber performances from Jered McLenigan and Dan Kern, Act II Playhouse’s production was the definition of theatricality. Veteran director James J. Christy summoned all the tricks of the trade to create a thrilling and spooky box-office smash. Brilliantly crafted and highly imaginative, the fast-paced show used every inch of the tiny playhouse to deliver what was undoubtedly the season’s most entertaining staging.
Circle Mirror Transformation, Theatre Horizon. Norristown’s Theatre Horizon joined the ranks of the area’s elite companies with director Mathew Decker’s exquisite production of Annie Baker’s quiet drama. Featuring wonderful performances from Kim Carson and Emilie Krause, Baker’s story of an acting class in a small town perfectly captures the fragile nature of balancing the needs of the individual in relationships that can be either suffocating or immensely rewarding.
Calendar: Sept. 30-Oct. 7