The year in theater highlights romance, ‘Magnolias’ and the stars

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 1/3/24

A wide mix of dramas trod the boards of our area's theaters this past year, presented with energy and imagination.

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The year in theater highlights romance, ‘Magnolias’ and the stars


A wide mix of dramas trod the boards of our area's theaters this past year. Routinely presented with energy and imagination, these shows often feature both veteran and first-time players. It all came to a head during the holiday season.

Over the past decade, Quintessence Theatre has changed the holiday scene with shows like "Wind in the Willows" and "Mary Poppins." This year, they continued their tradition of seasonal, cross-generational appeal with "The Fantasticks" and "The Little Prince." Both productions have been such a success that Quintessence is extending their runs. “The Fantasticks” will now close on Jan. 7, “The Little Prince,” on Jan. 14.

In “The Fantasticks,” composers Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones draw on "The Romancers" by Edmond Rostand, a tale about two young people who fall in and out of love with chimerical ease. The musical broke all records, running Off-Broadway for 42 years. Full of song, choreography and color, director Megan Bellwoar makes you feel its joyous, tragicomic appeal. 

The Little Prince" is based on the celebrated children's novella, "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, with book and lyrics by John Scoullar and Music by Rick Cummins. A magical coming-of-age story directed by Kyle Metzger, the production is well suited for older children even as it dares adults to re-examine shopworn values.

On a different tack, director Tony Braithwaite, of Act II Playhouse, premiered his holiday show, "Christmas in the Catskills." Full of ribald humor fit for adults, Braithwaite celebrates legendary Borscht Belt comics of the 50s and 60s. While these shows cap off the season, here are a few of the year's other highlights. 

The Stagecrafters Theater

 "Silent Sky," directed by Yaga Brady, honors the pioneering women of "Pickering's Harem." Working at the Harvard Observatory, they were gifted mathematicians who overcame gender bias to create the first calculations for recording celestial distances. 

Their work gave Edwin Hubble the tool to demonstrate the expanding universe. Astronomer Henrietta Leavitt stood out, a dreamy young woman who would not be pigeonholed. Playwright Lauren Gunderson endows her with fictional traits to make this documentary theater watchable. 

The feminist focus of playwright Rebecca Gilman is darker. In "Boy Meets Girl," directed by Mariangela Saavedra,Theresa's blind date turns into a psychopathic stalker. It is an effective terror-thriller. But Gilman's formal argument that the stalker is just a cultural emanation of paternalistic society is a stretch. Where do "Play Misty For Me" type women come from? 

Quintessence Theatre

 "Major Barbara" (1905) by George Bernard Shaw follows the lead of Ibsen in demanding a "Theater of Ideas." Shaw argues, (laboriously, I thought), that a self-congratulatory idealism that removes you from practical affairs is dishonest.

"No Exit" (1944) by Jean-Paul Sartre is a seminal work in "Theater of the Absurd." Three people find themselves locked into a mysterious, French Second Empire drawing room. In a production directed by Alex Burns, they learn this is their Afterlife, where the presence of The Other Person tortures them into self-objectification.

Presented in rotating repertoire with the same actors  - Melody Ladd dazzles in both shows - the two plays bookend dominant movements of 20th-century drama. Attenuated absurdism survives in our dark comedy. Likewise, a domesticated form of idea-activist theater is apparent in the contemporary glut of human rights dramas, (the cited Stagecrafters shows, for example).

Act II Playhouse

 "Boca" best typifies the season at Act II Playhouse. Written by Jessica Provenz, it is about the antics of seniors in a Florida retirement community. Director Tony Braithwaite pulls in five stellar actors to perform multiple roles, including perennial Barrymore favorites Penelope Reed and Mary Martello.

While Provenz has a moralistic throughline about "people pulling for each other," we see little of it. In a series of zany skits, the residents desperately seek out private happiness. "Boca" is a good example of Act II's appeal to theater's old adult demographic, and of Braithwaite's talent for bringing fun onto the stage. 

Old Academy Players

 "The Broken Hollow Banshee," written and directed by Rob Rosiello, is a dramatization of a radio serial thriller he wrote during COVID, a throwback to the Golden Age of Radio. A young woman tries to escape her drab Manhattan life, only to be pursued by unknown horrors. 

Likewise, director Loretta Lucy Miller takes you back to yesteryear with "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1941) by Joseph  Kesselring.  Inside a well-appointed Victorian drawing room, her cast gleefully inhabits comedic roles, ("Charge!" cries MAGA Teddy Roosevelt). Given today's world, its inventive satire is a hoot. 

It is always interesting to see productions of the same show. And this year, both Act II Playhouse (director Megan Bellwoar) and Stagecrafters (director Suki) produced "Steel Magnolias." Both capture the gossipy feel of a hair salon in a backwater Southern town and convey the life-giving power of group belonging.

At the same time, the shows are distinct because of the way they handle the tragic heroine. Act II's Shelby is constrained, wanting to shield others from her suffering. But Stagecrafters' Shelby is openly buoyant, implicitly making demands upon the needy women around her.