Arts & Culture

In 2016, Triangle’s most memorable shows were timely, thought-provoking

Raleigh Little Theatre’s "Mothers and Sons" sympathetically focused on a parent’s inability to accept her son’s orientation while desperately wanting to assign blame for it.
Raleigh Little Theatre’s "Mothers and Sons" sympathetically focused on a parent’s inability to accept her son’s orientation while desperately wanting to assign blame for it.

Live theater matters.

Or it should matter these days. With so much film, TV and online video available, live theater offers something unavailable elsewhere. The best theater entertains but also challenges perceptions and gives new perspectives. And, because it’s live, the subject matter’s impact to the head and heart is far greater than from electronic formats.

In 2016, Triangle theaters offered many thought-provoking shows on timely themes that proved the value of live presentations. Here are some of the most memorable:

Corruption of power: PlayMakers Repertory Company’s chilling staging of “The Crucible” spotlighted the never-ending attempts by those in power to control by destroying resistance. Bare Theatre’s intimate, incisively characterized “Richard III” showed how easily a charismatic leader can manipulate the public. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s darkly humorous “Maccountant” (”Macbeth” set in a 1960s Wichita accounting firm), cleverly limned the rise and ultimate demise of an overly ambitious power-seeker.

Racial discrimination: Mortall Coile’s gut-punching “Master Harold … and the Boys” revealed how prejudices can be masked as empathy and friendship. PlayMakers’ inventive “We Are Proud to Present…” slyly drew in audiences with humor as the rehearsal of a show about racial genocide ultimately brought out deep-seated intolerance from all participants. Raleigh Little Theatre’s vibrant production of the musical “Memphis” demonstrated how the strict 1950s racial divide crushed the best intentions of a white man in love with a black woman.

LGBT issues: Theatre in the Park’s “Southern Baptist Sissies” boldly took on religious intolerance of homosexuality with devastating effect. Raleigh Little Theatre’s “Mothers and Sons” sympathetically focused on a parent’s inability to accept her son’s orientation while desperately wanting to assign blame for it. Durham Performing Arts Center’s hosting of the touring Broadway musical, “Fun Home,” gave its audiences a clear-eyed, heart-rending look at discovering one’s self and one’s family secrets.

Online dangers: Manbites Dog Theatre’s “The Nether” strongly warned against proliferating online sites that hide pedophiles who draw in young innocents. Bare Theatre’s “Everscape” thrust audiences into the addictive world of online gaming and role-playing, shedding light on how these can ruin lives while seeming to provide self-worth and comforting friendships.

A number of these worthy productions came from small, independent theater companies that rely on rental spaces to stage their shows. But these spaces continue to dwindle.

Durham’s Common Ground Theatre, host to many companies over the past 12 years, ceased operations at the end of December. Its out-of-the-way location and continued financial challenges led to its closing. Raleigh’s Sonorous Road Theatre has hosted independent companies for the last two seasons, but its building has just been purchased for future offices. Unless Sonorous Road can find a similar affordable venue by this May, another performance space vanishes.

As with the shuttering of Chapel Hill’s Deep Dish Theater last spring after 15 years, because its shopping center lease renewal could not be worked out, affordable space is key for keeping independents afloat. There’s something to be said for entrepreneurs and building owners working with this vital segment of the area’s rich theatrical landscape to ensure that their offerings continue into 2017 and beyond.

Notable performances in 2016

Actors: Lazarus Simmons’ affecting Junior in Manbites Dog’s “brownsville song”; David Henderson in the title role of Raleigh Little Theatre’s “Sweeney Todd”; Julie Fishell’s heartbreaking Kate in Theatre Raleigh’s “All My Sons”; Jonathan King and Michelle Murray Wells’ contentious millennial couple in Sonorous Road Theatre’s “Lungs”; and Derrick Ivey’s mesmerizing Walt in Manbites Dog Theatre’s “A Public Reading … About the Death of Walt Disney.”

Directors: Gus Heagerty’s energetic concept for Burning Coal Theatre’s “Blue Sky” staged at Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh; Vivienne Benesch’s breezy, youthful “Three Sisters” at PlayMakers Repertory Company; Eric Woodall’s shimmering staging of Theatre Raleigh’s “The Light in the Piazza” at the N.C. Museum of Art; and Jeff Storer’s mesmerizing ensemble in Manbites Dog’s “Open House.”