The 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner, by Jackie Sibblies Drury, was the stunner that launched Maria Goyanes’s first full season of plays as Woolly Mammoth’s artistic director. It proved a brash and conscience-challenging experience for audiences of all colors — exactly what theater in a city as racially complex as Washington should be attempting. Director Stevie Walker-Webb deftly put a splendid cast through the fascinating paces of Drury’s mind-bending play, about the white gaze on people of color and how black people look back, in frustration as much as anger.
The rise and fall of Lehman Brothers, the august investment bank that came tumbling down in the economic disaster of 2008, became an epic tale of ambition and overreach in this masterly, 3 1/2-hour staging by director Sam Mendes. It was the premier British import of 2019, mounted with its exquisite cast — Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley — at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. Stefano Massini’s play comes back with its original cast in March, this time to Broadway, where it is sure to contend for the best-play Tony.
Who would have thought a raucous musical based on a 1960s studio album would in 2019 so captivatingly rattle the foundations of Washington’s foremost performing-arts temple? That’s what director-choreographer Josh Rhodes and Co. managed to do at the Kennedy Center, with this smashing revival-in-concert of the hallucinogenic story of a boy who goes from catatonia to superstardom. As Tommy in the arts center’s Broadway Center Stage series, Casey Cott was the potent central power source in a Broadway-caliber ensemble that also included Christian Borle, Mandy Gonzalez and Wesley Taylor.
Repeat after me: Ian Merrill Peakes. It’s a name you certainly should recognize and probably don’t. Why? Because one doesn’t gain widespread fame by being a great actor in regional theater. This injustice may some day be rectified. In the meantime, audiences can see the under-heralded Peakes in local productions such as director Richard Clifford’s supremely well-handled revival of Peter Shaffer’s sprawling 1980 play at Folger Theatre. Peakes portrays Antonio Salieri, a politically powerful but mediocre composer psychically crushed under the weight of his younger rival of unparalleled genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He is also akin to the show’s load-bearing beam, an actor providing the galvanizing muscle for an altogether invigorating evening.
Samuel D. Hunter’s haunting tragedy at Lincoln Center Theater, about an older woman (played by Judith Ivey) holding on in a small Idaho town that’s caught in the crosscurrents of political upheaval and economic despair, is the year’s most devastating new work. The playwright, known for his powerful evocations of the burned-out ends of hope in the heartland, in such plays as “A Bright New Boise” and “The Whale,” outdoes his own estimable canon with this sorrowful declaration that there are no second acts in American lives.
“Who am I, anyway? Am I my résumé?” These melodic questions go to the heart of this beloved 1975 musical, and it’s the heart that Signature Theatre’s sterling revival pierces so effectively. Director Matthew Gardiner and choreographer Denis Jones had the idea — some purists would say, the nerve! — to work their own dance notions into those conceived by the original director/creative genius Michael Bennett. The result isn’t so much a revision as a slightly personalized version, and that served the vision: In Signature’s intimate confines, you felt the hope and desperation of each and every dancer. They face the future full of doubt but determined to see adversity through.
The pure joy of performance is nowhere more ecstatically revealed these days than in this evening of improvised hip-hop, made stageworthy by “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail and a cadre of lightning-quick rap magicians. In tried and true improv fashion, a cast headed (on some nights) by a newcomer named Lin-Manuel Miranda — I mean, really, where did they find him? — takes suggestions from the audience and turns them into instant, hilarious songs and stories. The show has to end its Broadway engagement at the Booth Theatre in January, but you wish, as with any wonderful party, it would just go on and on.
Sneaking onto the list from its perch in a Shakespeare theater in the foothills of the Shenandoahs, this new musical is based on composer/lyricist/book writer Julianne Wick Davis’s inspired notion: to build a cycle of songs out of the suitcases left behind by inmates in a shuttered asylum for the mentally ill. The imagined owner of each suitcase gets a song, in a world-premiere production at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., staged by artistic director Ethan McSweeny. As actors accompany them on piano and guitar, the singers unspool their stories of fragile minds and cast-aside lives. The spell it casts is beguiling.
Jocelyn Bioh enrolls a passel of vibrant characters in this satire about the cutthroat social competition in a girls’ school in Ghana to reveal that high school cliques and pecking orders are as much a fact of teenage life in West Africa as they are in West Virginia. Round House Theatre reopened its refurbished Bethesda home with Bioh’s sharply observed comedy of adolescent one-upmanship and excellent performances from, among others, Kashayna Johnson, Awa Sal Secka and Jade Jones. Working in the crisply renovated space, director Nicole A. Watson helped to make this a re-christening to remember.
A passionate, funny and touching play about . . . a bunch of amendments? This was the unlikely coup perpetrated by Heidi Schreck in her autobiographical tale of how our founding document touches her life — and by extension, yours and mine. After a celebrated engagement on Broadway, Schreck brought the play to the Kennedy Center, where it seemed as aptly part of the surroundings as the big bust of JFK in the foyer. The contributions of director Oliver Butler rarely get adequate acknowledgment, so let’s do so here: He and Schreck stripped their production of anything remotely inauthentic. And what audiences got as a result was a pure testimonial to the joy of constitutional freedoms.