Top Acting Performances of 2018

Top Acting Performances 2018

2018 was a year filled with extraordinary acting performances, and it is inevitable that most of them will not make an end-of-the-year list. You might think that I overlooked a stellar piece of work, but generating conversation about this great year in Chicago theatre is what these lists are all about. So feel free to disagree. Put other names in the comments. Chances are that I’ll even agree with you that they should have been honored; unfortunately, the List Gods have decreed that ten is the magic number, so I will have to stop there. Let the arguments begin!

My rules for consideration were simple:

  • Since there is no realistic way for me to see every play in town and I cannot judge what I have not seen, only performances in plays I saw were considered. (I did see approximately 200 plays this year, though.)
  • Since the Jeff Awards has gone to a gender-neutral format, I am doing so as well. Hence instead of lists of ten women and ten men, we have 20 names in my “Top 10″ without consideration of gender.
  • I am not even going to think about trying to divide apples from oranges and name a “best performance of the year”; performers are listed alphabetically.


Sheldon Brown, This Bitter Earth, About Face Theatre

As one half of a gay couple in this play about love and loss, Brown was brilliant. With his character going through some major emotional swings in this play presented out of sequence, he jumped in and out of powerful scenes and through loving ones and comic ones and back.

Brianna Buckley, Crumbs From the Table of Joy, Raven Theatre

From the second she walked onto the stage, playing the carefree aunt of a deeply religious family, Buckley was a force of nature in this play: entering like a whirlwind in red, she immediately claimed the stage, and whether boisterously drunk, audaciously sexy, or honestly tender, her Lily shined.

Faye Butler, Gypsy, Porchlight Music Theatre

Butler proved herself a master, in case any further evidence was required, in her tour de force role of Mama Rose. Her big, booming voice and her dynamic presence helped make this Gypsy a marvelously entertaining experience, and in the quieter moments, like her “Small World” duet, she brings her outsized character right down to earth.

Elaine Carlson, Madwoman of Chaillot, Promethean Theatre

Character actresses don’t often make these lists, but Carlson’s performance here was a master class in the craft. In a triumph of perfect casting, she owned every scene she was in with this hilarious, brilliant, over-the-top performance.

Heather Chrisler, Mies Julie, Victory Gardens Theatre

The most intense play of the year featured Chrisler as a white woman who lusts after a black man in post-Apartheid South Africa. It is an overtly sexual role, as Julie uses her power both as an heiress and as a white woman to get what she wants, only to find that she has crossed a line she cannot uncross. Chrisler threw herself into the role with all of the passion she could muster, leaving the audience exhausted by play’s end.

Jennifer Engstrom, Women Laughing Alone Eating Salad, Theater Wit

This entire ensemble deserves honors (and in fact I’d call it the Best Ensemble of the year), but Engstrom, as the woman who dominates her son while exhibiting downright self-loathing behavior, is the standout. She dove into the character’s eccentricities (believe me, that’s a mild word here) with vigor, stealing the show in every scene she appeared in.

Kelly Felthous, Cabaret, Paramount Theatre

Felthous delivered an impeccable performance, from the ebullience of her early songs to her gradually falling for Clifford to the mania and furor of her ultimate rendition of “Cabaret.” She was a Sally Bowles like you’ve never seen, one tinged with anger, fear and doubt alongside of her expressed optimism.

Jeffrey Owen Freelon, Jr, The Light, New Colony Theatre

The best show of the year featured two of the best performances of the year. As half of a wonderful loving couple torn apart when a secret from the past rises to the surface, Freelon’s emotions here ranged from joy and tenderness to pain and powerful loss. He left the audience crying along with him.

Theo Germaine, Boy, Timeline Theatre

As the titular “boy,” Germaine gave a remarkable performance. A non-binary trans actor, Germaine played both Adam and his alter-ego “Samantha” at various ages. The power of Germaine’s performance can’t be understated. Both as Adam and as Samantha, they had to uncover strong binary forces within themself to play the role, trying to balance love and hate in the same moments.

Jalen Gilbert, Mies Julie, Victory Gardens Theatre

The other half of the cross-racial couple whose illicit passion is the center of this play, Gilbert was at his best in the latter half of the play when his character uses his sexual liaison with the white heiress to enact his own agenda.

Jacquelyne Jones, Sweeney Todd, Theo Ubique

As Mrs. Lovett, the meat-pie maker in love with Todd, Jones had the audience eating out of her hands. Her over-the-top performance remained grounded by subtle movements and honest compassion as her character ignored the murders committed by the man she loved and used them to enrich herself.

Tara Mallen, The Cake, Rivendell Theatre

From her opening monologue about mistakes people make baking cakes right through to the end, Mallen’s bravura performance helps us to see the humanity and love in a person many of us would vilify: the woman who refuses to bake a cake for a gay wedding. That we never once thought of her as the villain in this play was a testimony to Mallen’s skills as much as playwright Bekah Brunstetter’s lines.

John Mossman, How I Learned to Drive, The Artistic Home

If there was a creepier performance this year than Mossman’s portrayal of the uncle who molested young L’il Bit in this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, I don’t know what it was. Mossman played him as someone who simply doesn’t allow himself to become aware that what he is trying to do is utterly wrong, and he was brilliant.

Tiffany Ogelsby, The Light, New Colony Theatre

As a rape victim forced by circumstance to confront her demons, Ogelsby’s performance foreshadowed the real-life drama of the Kavanaugh hearings. It was a raw, personal performance that was at once powerful and vulnerable.

Ryan Shaw, Jesus Christ Superstar, Lyric Opera

Speaking of villains and victims, Shaw’s performance as Judas cleverly rode the boundary between the two. Yes, he betrays Jesus, but all along it is clear that he doesn’t want to. Shaw’s Judas constantly tries to get Jesus to see the dangers of a mob; he acts out of broken faith and confused love.

Bethany Thomas, Moon for the Misbegotten, Writers Theatre

Thomas had all of the necessary acting chops to create this complex woman who masks her loneliness with bravado and self-deprecation that itself masks as braggadocio. At the center of the action in this haunting, often hilarious play, Thomas brought this larger than life character down to earth.

Tiffany Topol, Once, Paramount Theatre

Her character is full of energy and enthusiasm, she possesses preternatural self-confidence and a wonderfully sarcastic sense of humor, and somehow everything she plans comes to fruition even if she has no way to make it happen when she first promises it. And Topol was brilliant: Her near-constant smile was so fabulous that, in sadder parts of the show when it was missing, it was as if part of her soul was fading.

Philip Torre, Sweeney Todd, Theo Ubique

As the titular barber/serial killer, Torre was all intensity and passion. In the tiny No Exit Cafe, with the staging so close audience members could have literally reached up and touched him, his character’s pain was etched all over his face. And when he finally shared a sardonic smile with Mrs. Lovett in “A Little Priest,” Torre somehow made him even creepier.

Michael B. Woods, Cyrano, Boho Theatre

Woods played the title role with all of the melancholy and pleasure…and panache…that goes along with a man with a dozen good friends who can defeat an opponent (or a hundred) at his will while reciting poetry and yet cannot find fulfillment in his private life. It was this dichotomy that he mined for all of the humor and pathos of the play.

Larry Yando, Buried Child, Writers Theatre

Yando established from the start that this is a forlorn man; if he once was industrious and energetic he no longer is anything but a carcass waiting to be. It is rare to see a man so completely dominate scenes with hardly any movement at all, but Yando achieved this: Dodge is practically inert, yet Yando was almost always the center of attention. It was a masterful acting job.


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