2014 was a tumultuous year for Houston theater. First the Alley decamped to UH's Wortham Theatre for the 2014–15 season to allow for a $73 million renovation of its downtown digs, which caught fire in September, causing minor damage but fortunately no injuries.  

Main Street Theater, whose Rice Village location was also scheduled for a much-needed renovated, had planned to stage its 2014–15 season at at its Chelsea Market theater, where it normally stages its children’s plays. Then, just weeks before the start of the season, Chelsea Market unexpectedly gave their longtime tenant the boot. Stunned by their eviction, MST reduced its Rice Village season to just two plays—Peace in Our Time, and the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together—and moved their children's plays to Talento Bilingüe de Houston's headquarters in the East End. 

As if that wasn't enough, the Catastrophic Theatre suffered a major loss when resident playwright Miki Johnson pulled her original musical The Crab King, which had been scheduled for November, and cut ties with the theater, leaving a gaping hole in Catastrophic's fall schedule. As always, however, the show must go on, and despite all the various dislocations and disruptions, it did. In fact, the Alley, MST, and Catastropic staged some of our favorite plays from the past year. Because we cannot claim to have seen all of this year's productions, this is not a "Best of 2014" list. Rather, consider it merely a list of the plays we'll most remember in years to come. 

BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK, ENSEMBLE THEATRE 

Sure, the Ensemble Theatre’s production of this Lynn Nottage play ran a bit long, but By the Way, Meet Vera Stark had a great many interesting things to say about the modern world and its dilemmas, among them the plight of African American actors past and present (as Hattie McDaniel, oft-criticized for her Oscar-winning turn in Gone With the Wind, put it, “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid”). And thanks to Eileen J. Morris’s swift and confident direction, Vera Stark said them in a way that made for a uniquely enjoyable night at the theater. —SV 

clean/through, Catastrophic Theatre

Jessica Janes and John DeLoach

Image: George Hixson

Plays like clean/through are why we were so saddened to see Miki Johnson end her association with Catastrophic. Johnson’s play was inspired by the life and music of Elliott Smith, the brilliant singer-songwriter who battled a heroin addiction and committed suicide at the age of 34, and whose lovely songs played during scene changes. Like Smith, the lead character (a superb, edgy John DeLoach) is a celebrated Los Angeles musician who can’t seem to put his drug use behind him, to the despair of his long-suffering girlfriend. The play seemed especially timely given the heroin overdose of Philip Seymour Hoffman only weeks before the play’s premiere. Only occasionally veering into melodrama, Johnson managed to breathe new life into what could easily have been just another clichéd take on addiction. —MH

THE OLD FRIENDS, ALLEY THEATRE

(L-R) Betty Buckley as Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff, Cotter Smith as Howard Ratliff, and Veanne Cox as Julia Price in the Alley Theatre’s production of The Old Friends.

Image: John Everett

Most everyone in the cast of the Alley’s production of Horton Foote’s absorbing dramedy The Old Friends—which opened the company’s season-long sabbatical at UH’s Wortham Theatre—found their characters’ unique centers of pleasure and pain, but none more so than Betty Buckley. The veteran stage actress brought soul-shattering violence to her performance, but also lightning-quick shifts from amusing to terrifying and back again.

Thanks to Buckley and fellow cast member Veanne Cox, Foote’s flair for the gothic was revealed in a way we hadn’t seen before. One left the theater wishing that some of The Old Friends’s existential absurdity had made its way into some of the playwright’s other, better-known works. —SV

PEACE IN OUR TIME, MAIN STREET THEATER

Main Street Theater may have been forced to whittle their 2014–15 schedule down to two plays, but their only fall production was a doozy. Peace in Our Time, a brilliant new staging of the seldom-performed Noël Coward drama, ended up selling out most of its run. The play, written a few years after the end of World War II, imagines what might have happened if Nazi Germany had successfully invaded England. Who would have collaborated? Who would have joined the resistance? Who would have kept their heads down and their mouths shut? Set in that most English of all locations, a pub, and featuring characters ranging from a newspaper editor to an actress to an old pensioner, the play dramatizes the corrosive effects of foreign occupation on a conquered people—thus proving surprisingly relevant to our post-9/11 world. —MH

TIME STANDS STILL, MAIN STREET THEATER

Sarah (Sara Gaston) and Mandy (Lisa Villegas)

Rather than obliquely commenting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Peace in Our Time managed to do, Time Stands Still addressed the issue head-on. Donald Margulies’s play is set in the New York apartment of two war journalists: James, a magazine writer who suffered a nervous breakdown in Iraq and has opted to sit out the remainder of the war at home, and his girlfriend Sarah, a photojournalist who is recuperating after being wounded when an IED blew up her car, killing her local Iraqi fixer. Things grow increasingly tense as Sarah’s editor pushes her to return to Iraq and James demands that she stay home. Although the characters were a bit schematic, the acting was superb, and the play asked powerful questions about the role of journalists in war, and the price they pay for bringing us the story. —MH

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