McKinley Belcher III, A Guide for the Homesick, Huntington Theatre Company
Ken Urban’s world premiere play was moving all around, yet it was Belcher’s dual performances that made the most impact. At once relentlessly sexy and heart-wrenchingly vulnerable, he left no emotional stone unturned.
Jennifer Ellis, The Bridges of Madison County, SpeakEasy Stage
The feelings that Ellis stirred inside of me could easily fill up their own page. Ellis played Francesca, a wife and mother of two that suddenly finds herself unfulfilled among the cornfields of Iowa. When a handsome photographer passes through town, an unexpected love affair brings her back to life. There are few Boston actresses as luminous as Ellis. And I’ve never seen anyone sob-sing as effectively as her.
Matthew J. Harris, Topdog/Underdog, Huntington Theatre Company
Talk about a tour de force. Harris played Booth, an aspiring three-card monte hustler and professional shoplifter in Suzan-Lori Parks’ searing Pulitzer Prize winner about dreams, desperation, and good old sibling rivalry. As he also demonstrated in the Huntington’s productions of Milk Like Sugar and Tartuffe, Harris’ alluring charisma is a thing of beauty.
Aisling O’Sullivan, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, ArtsEmerson
As the title role of Martin McDonagh’s 1996 masterpiece, O’Sullivan played Maureen, a 40-year-old shell of her former self, resentful for having been stuck by her siblings with taking care of her miserable old mother. It’s one of the most challenging female roles of the late 20th century, and O’Sullivan’s performance was as good and unforgettable as anything I’ve ever seen.
Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Edward II, Actors’ Shakespeare Project
Parent’s performance as the title ruler in Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play about love, lust, and duty was one of the theatrical high points of the last several years. Fearless, wrenching, and totally seductive, Parent reached new heights in this brilliant production.
Amanda Plummer, The Night of the Iguana, American Repertory Theater
I swear, time stopped when Plummer was on stage in this all-star revival of Tennessee Williams’ classic. Plummer played Hannah Jelkes, a traveling sketch artist from New England who drifts into a cliffside Mexican resort and forges an unlikely spiritual connection with a tortured and disgraced former priest. It was a performance of unforgettable grace.
Andrea Syglowski, A Doll’s House, Huntington Theatre Company
There was plenty wrong with this ambitious but only moderately affecting revival of Ibsen’s classic. Yet Syglowski was spellbinding as Nora, a wife and mother with a secret that threatened to destroy her reputation. Flirtatious, sexy, and empowered, Syglowski was electric.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, ArtsEmerson
Absolutely riveting from top to bottom, Martin McDonagh’s tragically dark comedy about a viciously dysfunctional mother and daughter and their dying dreams was perfect in every way. Director Garry Hynes recreated her Tony-winning production with its original Tony-winning leading lady, Marie Mullen, who this time around played the mother. It was an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
Edward II, Actors’ Shakespeare Project
Who ever would have thought that Marlowe’s 16th-century history play would be the most provocative and edgy work of the year? David R. Gammons’ bold and brave production was the perfect marriage of design, concept, and performance. The Boston theater scene would be all the better for more risks like this one.
Hand to God, SpeakEasy Stage
The second entry on this list for director David R. Gammons, Hand to God was one of 2017’s supreme delights. Robert Askins’ outrageous dark comedy about a sock puppet possessed by the devil—and the havoc he wreaks on members of a Christian ministry in middle-of-nowhere Texas—was SpeakEasy’s second consecutive slam dunk following The Scottsboro Boys, DigBoston’s No. 1 show of 2016. That Gammons is not being courted by every theater company in the city is one of life’s greatest perplexities.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Boch Center
I’ve been a Hed-head ever since this John Cameron Mitchell/Stephen Trask musical took New York by storm almost 20 year ago. Although I caught Michael Mayer’s 2014 Tony-winning Broadway production on which this tour was based, this Euan Morton-led tour was somehow even better, more devastating, and more flat-out entertaining.
Merrily We Roll Along, Huntington Theatre Company
Director Maria Friedman’s solid gold production of Sondheim’s notorious flop was one of the most fulfilling experiences of the year. Original London stars Damian Humbley and Mark Umbers reprised their performances as two best friends ripped apart by fame, money, and time. It took over 30 years to get it right, but boy, was it worth the wait.
Rent, Boch Center
Maybe nostalgia played a major role in landing Rent, Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking 1996 rock opera, on this list. Nevertheless, this electric and deeply felt 20th anniversary tour was a reminder of how life-affirming and gloriously moving the show can be when it’s done right. Rent fizzled and lost its spark in the final years of its Broadway run. If it had maintained even half of the intensity and spirit of this remounting, Rent may never have said goodbye to Broadway.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Lyric Stage
Expectations were sky-high for director Scott Edmiston and stars Paula Plum and Steven Barkhimer. Edward Albee’s devastating 1962 tragicomedy is extraordinarily difficult to get even kind of right, let alone totally right. Three hours felt like 30 minutes in this gorgeously acted production.
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.