2015 was one of the better years for theatre in recent memory, with productions full of intense emotions and high spectacle, coming from companies both big and small. Here begins a list of my fifteen favorites, which was difficult to narrow down, and even harder to order. There are so many productions that could have ended up here, and please note that, as one person, there were several high profile productions that I was not able to attend, so apologies if your favorite did not make the list. Here are numbers 15-11.
15. Jacob’s Ladder by Dennis Bailey and David Mixner
Theatre en Bloc
Directed by Derek Kolluri
War stories are nothing new, but it’s rather rare that we get a look at the people on the sidelines. “Jacob’s Ladder”, Theatre en Bloc’s Austin Critics’ Award Winner for Best Drama, takes us into the life of one such person, Jacob, a Jewish man working as a staffer in the FDR administration during the early stages of the Second World War. How his religion, and his doubts about the administration, play into the goings-on of the world at the time is intriguing to watch, and the cast is top notch, especially the women, including Jenny Lavery as Jacob’s ambitious young wife, Babs George as Jacob’s immigrant mother, and, perhaps most impressive, Johanna Whitmore as the fierce but sensitive secretary to President Roosevelt. Theatre en Bloc is still a company on the rise, who seems to be improving with each production, and this critic is truly looking forward to just what they will pull off next.
14. The Night Alive by Conor McPherson
Hyde Park Theatre
Directed by Ken Webster
Hyde Park Theatre has done Austin a great favor in bringing the works of writer Conor McPherson to its stages, as his work is always in touch with the zeitgeist and alive. Though “The Night Alive” lacks the poetry of plays such as “Port Authority”, “The Weir” or “Saint Nicholas”, it still keeps its fingers on a raw nerve, pushing the emotions to the fore. Jessica Hughes continues her amazing trajectory with this production, playing the heart of the piece, and is joined in nearly equal measure by Ken Webster, who pulls off one of his more emotional performances of recent memory.
13. The Quarry by Greg Pierce
Hyde Park Theatre
Directed by Ken Webster
Katherine Catmull has shown accomplished work throughout the years, but in “The Quarry”, she truly steps up her game to create something truly marvelous. Acting as almost a one-woman show for her talent, “The Quarrys” keeds her on stage throughout the entire production, with dialog through most of it. That she’s able to perform for such a long time at all is a testament to her resilience, and that she’s able to bring in such resolve and confidence only makes her all the more impressive. Of course, we shouldn’t forget about the performance by Jess Hughes, who yet again shows herself to be one of the best actresses in town, portraying nearly a half dozen characters, ranging in age from 16 to 30.
12. All the Way by Robert Shenken
Zach Scott Theatre
Directed by Dave Steakley
Over the past few years, Zach Theatre has been going above and beyond, creating lavish productions and bringing in big name talents from the word of TV, film, and the New York stage. “All the Way” prove Zach brings more than just big actors to the table, as they give us a riveting picture of the Johnson administration, featuring an astonishingly good performance by Steve Vinovich as LBJ. Confidence direction and assured performances keep what could be a very scattered, broad production, which has to cover the entire first year of the Johnson administration, on solid ground, and in the end, we’re left with a history lesson that’s also a surprisingly engaging watch.
11. The Strangerer by Mickle Maher
Capital T Theatre
Directed by Mark Pickell
It’s a strange idea: what if we take the ideas and themes of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” with the 2004 presidential debates? The result is as bonkers as you expect, but it’s the kind of bonkers that you can’t look away from. Early in the play, President Bush continues to attempt to kill Jim Lehrer, played by Jason Phelps, and soon after, we slowly hear the tale of what lead him to these actions. Insanity rules the day, but Robert Pierson plays Bush wish a kind of manic abandon that we see so infrequently, and which plays so perfectly off Ken Webster as subdued sleepwalker John Kerry.