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Onstage: Guts, 'Glory' and Greatness -- and a Full 'Glass'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page N06

A performance lasts a couple of hours, but epiphanies experienced in a thrilling night of theater stay with you forever. The past year offered any number of moments that linger in the mind of a theatergoer. What follows are some snapshots of the sparkling highs, as well as a few items from the album of offerings that didn't come as successfully into focus.

Let's start with five productions that hit the heights in the Washington theater of 2004:

Sally Field and Jason Butler Harner in the Kennedy Center's "Glass Menagerie." (Joan Marcus -- Kennedy Center)

1. "The Glass Menagerie." Gregory Mosher's sublime rendering of the classic family drama, and the cream of the Kennedy Center's summer-long festival "Tennessee Williams Explored." Led by Sally Field, whose sad-sack Amanda shed new light on a single mother's struggle to reconcile her ludicrous hopes with her dreary reality, the entire cast -- which also included Jennifer Dundas, Jason Butler Harner and Corey Brill -- rose touchingly to the occasion.

2. "Beyond Glory." In the shadow of Arlington National Cemetery, Stephen Lang took the stories of seven Medal of Honor winners and turned them into muscular and moving theater. Biographical drama has a tendency to bog down in stultifying time-line regurgitation, but Lang found vivid cadences of heroism in the voices of seven ordinary men who did extraordinary things.

3. "Pericles." Mary Zimmerman not only helped a Shakespearean basket case out of intensive care, she also made it seem the picture of health. Who'd have thought that this much-maligned play could emerge in such lusty spirit? Zimmerman's playfulness with text -- "Enter Pirates" will never again be thought of as a stage direction intended for readers only -- was abundantly realized in this eye-pleasing production, one that put the vitality of the Shakespeare Theatre in a resplendent showcase.

4. "Far Away." The most astonishing use of costume came in one of the year's most daring productions. At Studio Theatre, Joy Zinoman staged Caryl Churchill's breathtaking short play, a parable about growing up in a world of unspeakable horror, with a satisfying grasp of its theatricality. The parade of everyday people, herded to mass execution in hats of wild shape, color and imagination, offered up a shattering coup de theatre.

5. "M. Butterfly." For the masterly performance alone of one young actor, James Hiroyuki Liao, Tazewell Thompson's production for Arena Stage deserves a spot on this list. But there were many other worthy elements in the stirring revival of David Henry Hwang's play about Western arrogance and male gullibility. From the lighting by Robert Wierzel to the original music by Fabian Obispo, the technical elements of the play were as beautifully orchestrated as the scene work they embroidered.

Other local entries from the past 12 months earn special mention: Woolly Mammoth's world premiere of "Grace," Craig Wright's tragicomic examination of spiritual hypocrisy; "The Syringa Tree," a Studio Theatre presentation of a play by Pam Giens about growing up under apartheid; Rob Ackerman's sharp take on the advertising world in "Tabletop," at Round House; "Third," Wendy Wasserstein's new playlet at Theater J about the encounter between an aging lefty professor and the student athlete who challenges her, and Catalyst Theatre's darkly ambitious adaptation of George Orwell's "1984."

Many of the actors in the aforementioned shows -- and especially Field, Lang and Liao -- belong on any roster of top performances this year. There were others, including the five that follow, that substantially elevated the enjoyment of other evenings:

1. James Earl Jones, "On Golden Pond." No matter what you thought of the revival of Ernest Thompson's lackluster tearjerker at the Kennedy Center, Jones's comic portrayal of the crusty Norman Thayer saved it. Watching Norman testily dump a 13-year-old visitor from his favorite chair was a moment to make a whole night out worthwhile.

2. Geraint Wyn Davies, "Cyrano." Wyn Davies was not the Shakespeare Theatre's first choice for one of the English-speaking theater's choicest parts, but he distinguished himself nonetheless, with the physical and elocutionary dexterity the role desperately demands.

3. Holly Cruikshank, "Movin' Out." As Brenda, the queen of the prom, in the touring version of the Twyla Tharp-Billy Joel musical, Cruikshank exuded sex appeal and balletic panache. Jetes and rock-and-roll never looked so good together.

4. Marc Kudisch, "The Highest Yellow." Michael John LaChiusa's cerebral new musical at Signature Theatre about the agony of van Gogh and the ecstasy of his canvases was a mixed bag, but Kudisch's canny portrait of the artist, and his searing delivery of the title song, were unassailable.

5. Ann Duquesnay. "Hallelujah, Baby!" If your soiree happens to hit a snag, it's handy to have Duquesnay around. A little swivel of her hips, a little roll of the shoulders, a few bars of a jazzy tune, and the party will be swinging pronto. She performs this service in the Arena revival of this tepid '60s musical, and whatever they're paying her, it's not enough.

A few productions, inevitably, inspire something other than worship; the only prayer you say for those is one that wishes them away. The lowest moment of the year took place in May, when a clinking, clanking, clunking version of "Jesus Christ Superstar" rolled into the Warner and confirmed how utterly second-rate the road can be. It wasn't the year's only waking bad dream: a young cast sleepwalked through a soporific "Tommy" at Studio, and a desultory "Thoroughly Modern Millie" haunted the Kennedy Center Opera House this month. And Shakespeare Theatre affirmed the ugly-vibe reputation of "Macbeth," casting Kelly McGillis as a Lady Macbeth so prone to hysteria she made Tammy Faye Bakker seem as restrained as the statues in the Rotunda.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company