The Old Globe Theatre's production of "A Thousand Splendid Suns" tops the list of best shows of 2018 in San Diego. Photo by Jim Cox
The most hyped, and probably the most impressive, production of the year in San Diego was the national tour stop of Hamilton back in January. But locally staged dramas and musicals shone brightly in 2018, with many of them addressing vital and sensitive issues.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, Old Globe Theatre: Discomfiting in its brutality yet breathless in its beauty, the stage adaptation (by Ursula Rani Sarma) of Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel could not have been more impactful. Directed by Carey Perloff, Nadine Malouf and Denmo Ibrahim delivered striking performances as two Afghan women trying to survive and striving for freedom in Kabul at its deadliest (the years between 1979 and 2001). Original music by David Coulter contributed another layer of artistry to a remarkable production.
Cloud Tectonics, New Village Arts Theatre: Teatro Pueblo Nuevo, New Village’s bicultural outreach initiative, mounted its first mainstage production with this emotionally rich interpretation of Jose Rivera’s dreamlike 1995 play. Challenging in its non-linear perceptions of both time and love, Cloud Tectonics transported audiences to an L.A. at first grim, then pulsating with possibilities. NVA’s associate artistic director Nadia Guevara starred in this sensual outing directed by Herbert Siguenza.
The Last Wife, Cygnet Theatre: The last wife of the title is Katherine Parr, No. 6 in Henry VIII’s marital history. As written for the stage by Kate Hennig and powerfully portrayed by Allison Spratt Pearce, Katherine challenges not only her boorish and bullying king (Manny Fernandes), but the impenetrability of the monarchy. She also exudes and indulges a sexuality that adds heat to what is anything but a staid historical drama.
Cardboard Piano, Diversionary Theatre: The shocking moments of violence may have unnerved some audience members, but probably not at Diversionary Theatre, which consistently stages uncompromising works. Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, having its West Coast premiere at the University Heights theater, was no exception. A love story couched in the turmoil of Uganda at the turn of the new millennium, this was a production that epitomized intensity. The committed cast included Kate Rose Reynolds, Andrea Agosto, John Wells III and Wrekless Watson.
Once, Lamb’s Players Theatre: How could such an overly sentimental movie become a joyous theater experience? The answer rang out loud and clear in Coronado during Lamb’s Players Theatre’s loving presentation of Once. As the story’s lovers, Caitie Grady and Michael Cusimano spoke their hearts best with music (Grady on keyboards, Cusimano on guitar), backed by a talented ensemble of actor/musicians who turned the goings-on into an Irish-inflected concert with each foot-tapping performance.
Seize the King, La Jolla Playhouse: The playwright known as the pioneer of hip-hop theater, Will Power, dared to reimagine Shakespeare’s timeless Richard III in streetwise, frequently profane vernacular. The essence of Richard’s depraved ambition, however, was not sacrificed in the name of artistic license, making this world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse a treat for academics and pop culturalists alike.
Fun Home, San Diego Repertory Theatre: A graphic novel by Alison Bechdel was the inspiration for this reflective musical that was the highlight of a very good season at the San Diego Rep. As the grown Bechdel, Amanda Naughton recounted the life-changing moments of her discovering her sexual identity while also learning the truth about her closeted father (Jim Stanek). What could have been self-conscious instead resonated as honest and very real.
The Madres, Moxie Theatre: One of four American companies rolling out the world premiere of a play by Alison Walker, Moxie Theatre honored the mothers, the “madres” of the sons and daughters kidnapped or killed by the Argentine dictatorship, circa 1976-’83. A sense of desperation and claustrophobia prevails in the storytelling, all of it occurring in the Buenos Aires apartment of a madre named Josefina (Maria Gonzalez).
The Father, North Coast Repertory Theatre: Give North Coast Repertory Theatre, which relies heavily on comedies and safer dramas, credit for not only presenting Florian Zeller’s anguished play about a father slipping further and further into Alzheimer’s disease, but for its effectiveness in doing so. None of that would have been possible without a superior performance from James Sutorius as 81-year-old Andre and taut direction by David Ellenstein.
A Jewish Joke, The Roustabouts Theatre Co.: The year’s finest solo show featured Roustabouts Theatre Co. co-founder Phil Johnson as screenwriter Bernie Lutz, torn between his dreams of a hit in Hollywood and his conscience (the House Un-American Activities Committee is pressuring Bernie to inform on his partner). In 90 sweat-inducing minutes, Johnson created a painfully sympathetic character who even amid his torment managed to crack a few jokes.
Honorable Mention: San Diego Repertory Theatre’s A Doll’s House, Part 2; the Old Globe Theater’s The Wanderers; La Jolla Playhouse’s (with Cornerstone Theatre Co.) What Happens Next; Diversionary Theatre’s The Loneliest Girl in the World.
(Article originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/26/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.