It has been quite a year for theater in the Chestnut Hill area, with feature shows from two equity theaters as well as professional-grade productions from neighborhood troupes.
It has been quite a year for theater in the Chestnut Hill area, with feature shows from two equity theaters as well as professional-grade productions from neighborhood troupes. After a two-year COVID-induced absence, The Drama Group returned with a strong revival of "Antigone." And the year ended with fine holiday shows. Here are some highlights.
"Miss Bennet - Christmas at Pemberley" by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon is a sequel to Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." Under director Jane Toczek, the stage was lit up like a Christmas tree with eye-catching set and costume design as Stagecrafters reshaped Austen's social criticism into a holiday treat.
At Quintessence Theatre, director Emily Trask used the co-created Mackintosh - Disney script to come up with an energetic "Mary Poppins." Hanna Gaffney was picture-perfect as the quixotic nanny. She teams up with Steve Pacek as Bert, the chimney sweep, to teach the Banks family to treasure life. This is "a show for the whole family" if there ever was one.
Finally, Act II Playhouse introduced their world premiere of "COLE for your stocking." In a 65-minute musical revue of Cole Porter songs, director Dallas Padoven and artistic director Tony Braithwaite keep pace with Porter's urbanity. All night there are oodles of puns, including an impromptu Christmas musical that references Cole Porter standards.
But area theater offered more than holiday fare. There were outstanding shows throughout the year, some involving a strong historical sensibility that "puts you there." Act II presented "Eleanor" by Mark St. Germain, starring Penelope Reed, winner of the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Barrymore. You live through the 1930s and 40s as you watch Eleanor navigate the media to staunch scandals. That would be impossible today.
Quintessence presented "Flyin’ West" by Pearl Cleage. Zuhairah "Z" McGill both directed and starred in a drama about four African-American women who live through the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877. Through the power of theater you learn the "American Dream" did not apply to Black America. Quintessence won "The Social Insight" award for its production, the only Barrymore issued this year.
History cropped up as legacy in the Allens Lane production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" by Martin McDonagh. In Irish-speaking County Galway, a mother and daughter are enmeshed in a tortured relationship. Director Josh Hitchens suggests their struggle is equally a metaphor for Ireland's sorrowful relationship with England.
At Quintessence, artistic director Alex Burns continued to stage the classics. It opened the year with "The Cure at Troy" by the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, an adaptation of Sophocles' play "Philoctetes." It dovetails with the Allens Lane show in exploring rage as the enduring consequence of injustice. Later, Burns staged "The Chairs" by Eugene Ionescu, a seminal work in the "Theater of the Absurd" genre.
There were few shows which also had an absurdist feel, minus the quasi-philosophical trappings. A good example was the Stagecrafters production of "Crimes of the Heart" by Beth Henley. Directed by Yaga Brady, you visit a small Mississippi town. In a humorous "Southern Gothic" way, you see life through the eyes of some truly strange people.
Old Academy Players (where Grace Kelly got her start) produced a range of contemporary theater -- comedy, domestic drama, musical. Though not as well known as "The Mousetrap," their production of "The Unexpected Guest" by Agatha Christie was gripping, as you ran through many red herrings en route to the surprise ending.
Old Academy also held its annual summer festival. Professional and amateur playwrights alike submit one-act shorts, a unique event in the Philadelphia theater scene. This year there were seven 15-minute shorts. Two stood out. "The Joke" by Nancy Frick made clever use of the front stage/back stage dichotomy theater shares with politics. "Epiphany" by David MacGregor was both funny and affecting.
No doubt I slighted many in my reckoning. This year's theater was an embarrassment of riches, as they say. The Act II and Quintessence holiday shows are still running. All others have come and gone. But they are not forgotten, because live theater is so vital it can sometimes change the way you see yourself and the world.