This year marks 40 years since I began writing about Connecticut theater. I’ve often been asked to name the best shows I’ve seen here and have always fumbled in answering. So I finally sat down, waded through my programs and memories and came up with these 10.
What determined a show’s inclusion? It could be a thrilling new theater voice, a production of perfection, or a wondrous show that captured the zeitgeist.
But before I get to the list…
• There were legendary shows that I just missed by arriving a year or so too late: Streamers, The Changing Room, The Shadow Box, The Gin Game, all at Long Wharf Theatre. And, of course, I just missed the Meryl Streep years at Yale, including the Rep’s legendary A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (I did catch it when Robert Brustein later revived it and it was still enchanting.)
• Though I began covering theater in 1977, I made several trips to the state as a kid from my Massachusetts home, mostly to Stratford’s American Shakespeare Theatre. If I were to go beyond that 40-year limit, I would include Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring a sizzling Elizabeth Ashley and King Lear starring Morris Carnovsky.
• There were a number of plays that sent me to theater heaven, but they originated elsewhere, or were touring shows, so not really homegrown. So I might have included Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream at Yale Rep, Marvin’s Room at Hartford Stage, and from New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas, Copenhagen and Macbeth, the latter starring Antony Sher and Harriet Walter and the best production of that play I’ve ever seen.
• I didn’t see everything, and others would later rave about shows I missed such as Long Wharf Theatre’s production of The Normal Heart, or Requiem for a Heavyweight or Hartford TheaterWorks’ The Swan, among so many others.
• The list is about plays. I’ll save my favorite musicals for another time.
So the following is my top 10 in the order I saw them:
Yale Repertory Theatre, 1978
What a theatrical welcome to New Haven. Mark Linn-Baker was still a student as he dazzled with comic brilliance in this side-splitting and stripped-down staging by Andrei Serban for this quartet of Moliere one-acts that was a wondrous cuckoo clock of precision, invention and hilarity.
Long Wharf Theatre, 1980
Al Pacino tackles David Mamet and the result was incendiary. (I also loved Al’s bravura take on Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie in 1996, and Brian Dennehy, too, when he did it in 2008 at the theater.) But to choose a definitive Pacino stage performance — not to mention Mamet play — this would be it.
“Master Harold” …and the Boys
Yale Repertory Theatre, 1982
Athol Fugard’s works never fail to move me, but which of the many works that played either at Long Wharf Theatre or Yale Repertory Theatre should I choose? Tough call but I’d have to go with this Yale Rep production that starred Danny Glover, Zakes Mokae and Željko Ivanek. I’ll never forget the climactic scene when Ivanek’s character performs an act that is so shocking that it left me stunned and heartbroken.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Yale Repertory Theatre, 1984
Many would argue this is not the greatest of August Wilson’s pieces from his historic 10-play cycle. I would not disagree, but there’s nothing more thrilling than meeting a theatrical voice for the first time. It also introduced me to Charles S. Dutton, a year out of school, whose performance was a fierce and unforgettable thing to witness, too.
Our Country’s Good
Hartford Stage, 1990
Mark Lamos directed Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, which later went to Broadway, about the first play produced in Australia in its earliest days as a penal colony by hungry and mostly illiterate criminals, outcasts and misfits banished from England. Rarely has a work so movingly showed the transformative, liberating power of art. And the show introduced me to Cherry Jones.
Long Wharf Theatre, 1997
Margaret Edson only wrote one play, but it was a thing of beauty (and it won her a Pulitzer Prize). Wit centers on a professor of 17th-century poet John Donne who is dying an agonizing death in a teaching hospital. An indelible performance by Kathleen Chalfant made it pure poetry.
Westport Country Playhouse, 2002
Sometimes great productions transcend the quality of what’s on stage. When this revival premiered it was not great — but the moment in time somehow made it a show for the ages: It was Paul Newman’s return to the stage. (His performance became stronger as the run moved into Broadway). But following 9/11, it was the right show at the right time to remind us of our sense of community, humanity and eternal journeys.
The Orphans’ Home Cycle
Hartford Stage, 2009
Sometimes it’s all about the journey. With this nine-hour, triple trilogy, it was one hell of a trip to a little slice of Horton Foote’s Texas, made all the more poignant by the playwright’s passing in Hartford, which became one of his artistic homes late in life. Michael Wilson’s intimate and epic production followed the fortunes of Horace Robedaux, whose character was inspired by Foote’s father, from Texas, at the turn of the 20th century.
Water by the Spoonful
Hartford Stage, 2011
A new play without a hook or a star, whose run happened in the middle of a devastating hurricane, nevertheless made a stunning impression. Quiara Alegría Hudes’ play about the disconnected seeking a safe haven in the fast-evolving internet age showed that compassion still counts in cyberspace. Few people saw it. Then it won the Pulitzer Prize.
Yale Repertory Theatre, 2015
Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman showed in purely theatrical terms — using dance, words, music, design and staging — how a work of theater can enthrall, provoke and inspire, even in the darkest of times, even in the rain. The show would later go on to other theaters and Broadway, where it was nominated for a Tony Award, and filmed to be shown later this year.
JUST MISSED THE CUT
American Shakespeare Theater’s Othello, with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer in 1981; Long Wharf’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in 1981 with Richard Dreyfuss and Stockard Channing; TheaterWorks’ Three Tall Women in 1999; any of Christopher Bayes commedia dell’arte plays at the Rep; the almost-but-not-quite-a-musical These Paper Bullets at the Rep in 2014; any of the Richard Thomas-Mark Lamos collaborations at Hartford Stage; two-thirds of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Mike Nichols and Elaine May at Long Wharf Theatre in 1980; Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms in 1982 and The Common Pursuit, (which featured a very young but clearly starbound Nathan Lane) in 1985 at Long Wharf; and The Brothers Size at the Yale Summer Cabaret.
And then there were the musicals. Ah, that’s for another time.