Here we go. Again.
Having viewed over a hundred plays in 2016, on stages all around the Bay Area and beyond, it’s now my yearly responsibility to name my 10 favorites. As 2016 turned out to be an especially strong year for theater—ironically marked by many theater companies struggling for audiences—my task was particularly difficult this time around. Nevertheless, here they are, the shows I’m most grateful to have seen over the last 12 months — my top 10 torn tickets of 2016.
1. ‘Time Stands Still’ (Cinnabar Theater)
Anchored by complex, surprise-packed performances from Laura Lowry and Ivy Rose Miller (alongside solid work from John Browning and John Shillington), with sensitive, propulsive direction by Sheri Lee Miller, playwright Donald Margulies’ deeply insightful story of war correspondents trying to adjust to the real world was a brilliant examination of PTSD and the addictive appeal of a life powered by adrenaline.
2. ‘Gem of the Ocean’ (Marin Theatre Company)
Mild controversy surrounded Daniel Alexander Jones’ jazz-dance semi-sign-language staging of August Wilson’s masterpiece. But the result—thanks in large part to a masterful performance by Margo Hall as the 285-year-old former slave Aunt Ester—was a gem that glittered with emotion and magic, taking its somewhat baffled audiences on a journey that was simultaneously illuminating, beautiful and devastating.
3. ‘Capacity’ (Main Stage West)
In Rebecca Louise Miller’s emotionally satisfying, occasionally surreal fantasia on the relationship between Albert Einstein and his first wife, Mileva, the playwright pulls away the veneer of saintliness carried for decades by the man who developed the theory of relativity. Directed by Beth Craven, with strong lead performances by Ilana Niernberger and Sam Coughlin, this cosmic anti–love story was honestly and frankly bitter, and also strangely and compellingly lovely.
4. ‘A Steady Rain’ (Left Edge Theatre)
Two cops (Nick Sholley, Mike Schaeffer) take turns telling stories. A simple enough idea, but in Keith Huff’s brilliant two-actor drama, directed with intensity and drive by Argo Thompson, the set-up soon explodes into a psychologically gripping story of friendship, betrayal and the cost of carrying too much guilt—and too many secrets.
5. ‘Hope’ (Main Stage West)
Si Kahn’s lovely, song-filled tribute to his Jewish immigrant parents and their many colorful ancestors was heartbreaking, but powerfully uplifting. The ensemble morphed magically in and out of characters, telling a story of the United States that is vitally important at this crossroads moment in our history.
6. ‘Quality of Life (Cinnabar Theater)
Death hangs over every minute of Jane Alexander’s Quality of Life, a deeply moving look at two couples (Susan Gundunas and Richard Pallaziol; Elly Lichenstein and James Pelican) one conservative and religiously devout, and the other, well, not. Each pair is wrestling with the emotional fallout of death, including a recent murder and an impending demise from cancer. Directed by Taylor Korobow, the resulting conflicts and conversations touch the heart of what it means to be a human being in messy and tenuous relationships with loved ones.
7. ‘Bob: A Life in Five Acts’ (Main Stage West)
Born in a restroom, raised in a car, coming of age at a highway rest stop, Bob—played with raw, open innocence by Mark Bradbury—lives his entire life in the course of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s bizarrely rich and delightful comedy about love, life and the things that define us on our journey from birth to the grave. As directed by Sheri Lee Miller, it was as hilarious as it was profound.
8. ‘Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley’ (Marin Theatre Company)
A Christmas-time sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, this delightfully light and delicious romance, by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, was as surprising as a Christmas tree in a Regency-era drawing room, and just as welcome.
9. ‘Titanic: The Musical’ (Spreckels Theatre Company)
The infamous maritime disaster may seem like an unlikely subject for a full-blown musical. In truth, it is, but Gene Abravaya’s elegant staging and stellar cast made this heart-breaking drama sing, beautifully so, when in lesser hands it might have, ahem, sunk.
10. ‘Silent Sky’ (6th Street Playhouse)
Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky told the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, smartly played by Jessica Headington in the jaunty production helmed by Lennie Dean in the Studio at 6th Street Playhouse. A pioneering astronomer, Leavitt’s passion for the stars put her at odds with her devout sister (Juliet Noonan) and the male-dominated scientific community within which she worked at Harvard University. With a marvelous ensemble, this was an emotionally rich slice of history, as lingering and enthralling as a night sky crammed with stars.