In the Fort Worth theater scene, 2013 will be remembered, of course, as the year that Stage West founder and North Texas theater éminence grise Jerry Russell died. It also happened to be a year of superbly rendered small dramas and comedies outfitted with memorable casts. The generous spirit of what Russell stood for — intelligent and fearless productions full of recognizably human moments — dominated the shows at small theater companies this year. I’m grateful to have been an audience member at the following 2013 productions and hope local stage artists have an even more sophisticated and satisfying 2014 planned. Here are my favorite works, in no particular order.
Black Pearl Sings, Jubilee Theatre. In the 1920s, a black Southern prison convict with a powerful singing voice named Pearl (Liz Mikel) becomes the toast of the white cultural elite in the Northeast, thanks to an ambitious Library of Congress song collector (Lana K. Hoover). Mikel and Hoover did a delicate, shrewd job of traversing the vast racial and economic gulfs between their characters, as well as exploring the unexpected ways they connected.
A Bright New Boise. Circle Theatre. An evangelical Christian with a scandalous church past (Chip Wood) gets a job at a Hobby Lobby to be near his panic attack-prone son (Michael McMillan) who was given up for adoption as an infant. The most surprising and, in subtle ways, the most daring Fort Worth show of 2013, A Bright New Boise opened up a rich, fascinating minefield where religion and spirituality (or a lack thereof) explosively influenced the characters’ relationships.
Death Tax, Amphibian Stage Productions. A pitch-black satire about the eldercare industry and its many casualties, Death Tax followed a delusional, bed-ridden old lady (Georgia Clinton) who manipulated, and was manipulated by, her opportunistic caregiver (Stormi Demerson) and her unstable daughter (Laurel Whitsett). If you ever suspected there are worse things than death, this show’s vivid, frank look at end-of-life quandaries hauntingly confirmed it.
Gabriel, Stage West. This often riveting and unpredictable WWII-era character study featured a poetry-writing Nazi officer (Michael Corolla), a mother who resorts to prostitution to save her family (Dana Schultes), and a mysterious stranger who might literally be an angel (Garrett Storms). It’s very difficult to pull off a violent murder onstage, let alone one committed by a child, but Gabriel excelled at that kind of old-fashioned, high-wire theatrical drama.
God of Carnage, Circle Theatre. Yasmina Reza’s widely produced script is one of the most overrated international plays of the last decade — it boasts a lot more dazzling venom than theatrical substance. But Circle used exquisite precision to cast Reza’s caustic comedy about two bourgeois married couples battling like caged animals over a playground incident between their children. Lisa Fairchild as a passive-aggressive liberal do-gooder and Mark Fickert as her resentful, secretly right-wing husband both did particularly well at nailing their characters’ volatile personalities.
Knock Me a Kiss, Jubilee Theatre. In 1928 Harlem, Yolande Du Bois (Whitney Coulter), the spoiled and mercurial daughter of civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois (Dennis Raveneau), has to grow up real fast to avoid a society marriage to the probably gay poet Countee Cullen (Christopher Piper). Knock Me a Kiss, though set in a very different time and milieu, had an unapologetic, Girls-like boldness about young women searching for romantic and sexual fulfillment.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Theatre Arlington. Marjorie (Cindee Mayfield), a well-educated Jewish Manhattanite, believes there’s more to life than the fashionable Upper West Side bubble where she resides with her adoring doctor husband (Elias Taylorson) — she relies on a mysterious childhood friend (Brandi Andrade) to make her days more exotic and even dangerous in an international-terrorist kind of way. The Allergist’s Wife expertly delivered a very simple, time-tested lesson — be grateful for what you have — and did so with the best Tarrant County ensemble cast of 2013.