The year isn’t exactly ending on a high note. Rage over racial injustice, shocking reports of U.S. torture and the promise of even more governmental gridlock in 2015.
Dare I even mention Taylor Swift’s reign as queen of the pop charts?
Faith in our democracy isn’t easy to sustain these days, but a theater critic can look back with some pride on a theatrical year in which tough questions were addressed, complexity was welcomed and the boundary between self and other was momentarily washed away in a stream of artfully channeled empathy.
Politics was in, privileged self-absorption was out. Were there new musicals? I can hardly remember. It was a year for serious drama, and the plays that moved me the most were those that put on stage characters whose lives were every bit as confounding and messy as our own: Iraq vet Elliot Ortiz working through trauma within his family and community in Quiara Alegría Hudes “Water by the Spoonful” at the Old Globe; Caroline, the beleaguered yet persevering social worker struggling to repair the mangled lives of others while her own remains partly broken in Rebecca Gilman’s “Luna Gale” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre; Pharus Jonathan Young, the star of a renowned student choir who, ostracized for being gay, finds strength and self-respect in the Negro spirituals he leads in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” at the Geffen Playhouse.
In sharp revivals of Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss” at the Pasadena Playhouse and Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” at the Antaeus Company the connections between private conduct and public sentiment were subtly explored. Watching Callie and Sarah in “Stop Kiss” tentatively fall in love in the face of implicit and explicit homophobia was to become attuned to the way psychology and politics interact. Witnessing the standoff between Marlene and Joyce, the sisters in “Top Girls” whose lives socioeconomically diverged, was to understand just how the battle over values and policies in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain played out in everyday lives.
This was a year in which the desire to understand occasionally trumped the need to condemn. The Echo Theater Company’s production of Tommy Smith’s “Firemen,” a dramatic study of a sexual relationship between a school secretary and a teenage boy, trusted the maturity of its audience to examine a situation from a psychosocial perspective before arriving at a moral judgment.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3" at New York’s Public Theater, one of the most ambitious dramatic undertakings of the year, provided historical breadth for a civil rights fight that still isn’t done. This serial drama about a slave’s slow and painful journey toward freedom took on stinging resonance in the aftermath of Ferguson.
Even the best comedies had a certain weight, but that’s only to be expected from plays inspired by Chekhov’s genre-blurring masterpieces. Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the Mark Taper Forum was hands-down the funniest farce of the year, but an existential melancholy added depth to the frivolity.
Aaron Posner’s “Stupid … Bird” at the Theatre @ Boston Court fizzily deconstructed “The Seagull” to look at the dissatisfactions of artists and lovers in the 21st century — which turn out not to be all that different from artists and lovers in the 19th century. But if this sounds like self-indulgent navel-gazing, the play broke through the fourth wall to demand more reality from this encounter between actors and audience members.
With protests erupting nationwide over the police killings of unarmed black men and a growing discontent with system that is only exacerbating economic inequality in America, the theater will have to speak even more forcefully in the new year if it is to maintain its historic role as a public forum for societal soul-searching and debate.