Suburban playhouses have a stellar year of hits

Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte, Tinashe Kajese-Bolden, Courtney Patterson and Andrew Benator played the warring couples in the Alliance Theatre production of Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced.” PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY GREG MOONEY

Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte, Tinashe Kajese-Bolden, Courtney Patterson and Andrew Benator played the warring couples in the Alliance Theatre production of Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced.” PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY GREG MOONEY

The Alliance Theatre remains the mothership for locally produced theatrical work of national importance, while Broadway in Atlanta’s Fox Theatre series is the dominant producer of shows that trickle down from the Great White Way. But as ambitious, outside-the-perimeter playhouses made purposeful connections with the community this year, the old order has slowly shifted.

Here are the year’s theatrical highlights selected by critics Wendell Brock and Bert Osborne.

Wendell Brock’s picks

"Disgraced." Ayad Akhtar's 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner ponders the pride and fury of a successful New York attorney who is deeply conflicted about his Muslim identity. Given the divisiveness today over terrorism, religion and immigration, it begs a troubling question: Will Muslim Americans be forced to deny their faith as a mechanism of survival? Susan V. Booth's powerful Alliance Theatre production continues to haunt.

"In the Heights." Sure, dusting off a previous work by "Hamilton" composer Lin-Manuel Miranda made good business sense, but the production also gave voice to the region's sprawling Latino population. Aurora Theatre and Theatrical Outfit's deeply affecting "Heights" mirrored the hopes and dreams of a community. Directed by Justin Anderson.

"Thurgood." Just as the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia politicized the nation's highest court, Theatrical Outfit staged this spot-on one-man show about Thurgood Marshall (portrayed by the excellent Geoffrey D. Williams). The great-grandson of a slave, a liberal icon who abhorred capital punishment and the proliferation of guns, Marshall believed the law was the best weapon to fight social injustice.

"Chorus Line." It's been almost 10 years since Brandt Blocker took the helm of Atlanta Lyric Theatre. Under his leadership, the musical-theater producer has upped its game considerably. Case in point: Director Ricardo Aponte's stunning production of "A Chorus Line." As Blocker departs the Lyric at the end of the year, he leaves it on solid artistic footing.

"Ugly Lies the Bone." Lindsey Ferrentino, a two-time finalist in the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, brought the horrors of war home to a Florida living room. But at the end of a long and torturous journey on the Alliance's Hertz Stage, we began to see glimmers of light.

A year of musicals. Broadway in Atlanta staged one hit after another this year, from the audacious and delicious "Kinky Boots" to the family friendly "The Wizard of Oz" to the mocking and subversive "The Book of Mormon." Meanwhile, the Alliance deepened its relationship with "Book of Mormon" choreographer and co-director Casey Nicholaw ("Tuck Everlasting"), who returned to stage the topical zinger "The Prom," about a same-sex high-school courtship.

Bert Osborne’s picks

"On the Verge, or: The Geography of Yearning." This utterly unique gem at Georgia Ensemble charted the surreal adventures of three 19th-century women explorers (and unwitting time-travelers). Intellectual and lyrical in equal measure, the stylish production was sublimely navigated by director Carolyn Cook and co-stars Keena Redding Hunt, Park Krausen and Michelle Pokopac.

"Singles in Agriculture." A rom-com about a one-night stand between a lovelorn pair of seemingly stereotypical Southern hayseeds was the premise of this Aurora show. Expertly directed by the prolific Justin Anderson, who elicited tremendously touching and nuanced performances from Jeremy Aggers and Lauren Boyd, the production defied expectations with its level of honesty and humanity.

"The Revolutionists." Former Atlantan Lauren Gunderson's alternately fanciful and provocative period piece at 7 Stages took place during the French Revolution, fashioned partly as a cutting, pre-feminist farce, and partly as an historical expose about gender inequality. Artistic director Heidi S. Howard's invigorating black-box production featured another outstanding portrayal this year (see "On the Verge") by Park Krausen, who led the four-woman cast as a misunderstood Marie Antoinette.

"Wit." Beautifully mounted by Tlaloc Rivas and magnificently performed by the venerable Mary Lynn Owen, Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama involved a college poetry professor waging a losing battle against cancer. Although the play is every bit as heartrending as its plot suggests, it's not without a sharp sense of humor befitting its title. Aurora's version hit all the right notes with remarkable precision and distinction.

"Smart People." This savvy, sophisticated comedy about racial dynamics – as it relates to a group of Ivy League friends, lovers and colleagues – was dynamically realized in this True Colors production directed by David de Vries and featuring an adroit ensemble, most notably Danielle Deadwyler and Joe Knezevich, delivering the greatest performances of their careers as a free-thinking aspiring actress and a well-meaning neuroscience scholar.

Honorable mentions. Atlanta Lyric's rousing, well-cast musical "The Full Monty," under the direction of Alan Kilpatrick, about unemployed steel workers-turned-male strippers. Elegantly staged by Richard Garner, Synchronicity's stately and spirited "Anne Boleyn," featuring breakout work from Brooke Owens (in the title role) and Brian Hatch (as both King Henry VIII and King James II). An admittedly flawed but undeniably fascinating premiere by Atlanta playwright Derek Dixon, Essential Theatre's ambitious if economical "When Things Are Lost," directed by Amber Bradshaw.