With the same caveats as my Top 10 Productions list—I’ve only had the site going for three months, so this list can only cover the final quarter of 2017—here are some of the finest performances I have seen in the sixty-something shows I have reviewed. First, in alphabetical order, the Top 10:
Dana Black (Alice, The Book of Will, Northlight Theatre)
Black’s tavern keeper, the daughter of one of the men responsible for publishing Shakespeare’s works, was the glue that held this play together. Not only was she a stalwart backer of the central scheme, but she fought through the pain upon her mother’s death to help her father. Genuine, honest, caustic when she needed to be (and as a barmaid that is often enough), tender to her father, and absolutely dedicated to the plays of a man who gave more brilliant roles to women than anyone else she knew—maybe she had a little bit of precocious feminist in her too?—Black gave Alice the full range of emotions, including a bit of love/infatuation with the publisher’s son.
Jane Ulrich Brooks (Queen Elizabeth II, The Audience, Timeline Theatre)
With only the barest of costume changes (a jacket, a cardigan sweater), Brooks managed to suggest Her Majesty at various points across six decades of her rule as she met with eight of her (currently) thirteen Prime Ministers in their weekly private audiences. She captured the Queen’s growth from naïve young ruler being taught protocol by Winston Churchill to well-established matriarch learning to enjoy the company of Harold Wilson to frustrated world leader at the mercy of the iron will of Margaret Thatcher, and Brooks was up for it all. No matter who was onstage opposite her, she shined.
Nora Carroll (Octavia, BLKS, Steppenwolf Theatre)
Although the play is a three-woman show, with stories balanced among them all, it was Carroll’s Octavia who stole the show. Her scenes were often hilariously funny but constantly tinged with a kind of poignancy that lay just below the surface. Even her frequent refrain that she needed sexual pleasure because she may never have it again, which was always played for laughs, underscored an essential fear of being alone, the same fear that led her to sabotage her relationship with her girlfriend. Carroll handled these dual characteristics brilliantly, letting us laugh with and feel for Tavi all night long.
Liz Chidester (Lizzie, Lizzie, Firebrand Theatre)
One of the first songs in the show is the anguished “This Is Not Love,” Lizzie’s painful, haunting exploration of her father’s sexual improprieties since her mother died. In this song, Liz Chidester established a Lizzie who has been broken by these violations: her voice became shocking, a combination of a child and a stereotypical witch, and her face overflowed with the torturous memories. She was able to explore many other sides to the character as well during this unusual, exciting punk rock musical, both softer and more sinister, and pulled them all off with aplomb. It’s easy to believe that the show would not have worked anywhere near as well without her in the lead.
Alexandra Fisher (Judith, Foxfinder, Interrobang Theatre)
As Judith, the put-upon farmer’s wife who is our eyes and ears here and thus remains outside of the madness until she is chillingly drawn right into its center, Fisher had the dual job of portraying an outward semblance of calm and an internally exploding heart. She wisely didn’t totally give in to the latter even when the script might have allowed her to do so, maintaining as much decorum as her character could in the face of extremely emotional times. Fisher gave her the strength to carry on in a great performance.
Michelle Lauto (Spamilton, Royal George Theatre)
I’m cheating a bit here: I didn’t actually see this show during the fourth quarter and therefore didn’t review it. But Lauto’s performance, which was still going strong into November, was the kind of acting that is what spoof shows like Spamilton demand: when needed, she could blend into the ensemble in any role necessary, but when called upon to shine, Lauto proved herself a star. In one tour de force scene, she managed to play just about every diva in the history of theatre with very strong mimicry and brilliant comic timing. Lauto is a treasure, and this performance proved it. I’d wish SNL would find her, but then Chicago would lose her.
Stephanie Monday (J.B., J.B., City Lit Theatre)
As the beleaguered believer, Job, in this all-female play, Stephanie Monday was a revelation. J.B.’s perpetual smile in the presence of his extended family and loving wife, his joy over his business successes, the purity of his love for God, shined through in Monday’s performance. As one calamity after another befell the man, though, Monday allowed her face to darken into shadow, her body to shrink, her entire physicality ultimately to collapse into a painful heap, and the praise that J.B. gave to his God, still present, became so much harder. It was a difficult, powerful performance.
Danni Smith (Older Allison, Fun Home, Victory Gardens Theatre)
I could have chosen any one of the three “Allisons” to place here. Hannah Starr, as Middle Allison, had to navigate the difficult minefield of discovering both her own and her father’s sexuality. Stella Rose Hoyt, as Small Allison, was brilliant, her preternaturally expressive face allowing her to steal many of the show’s best moments. But it was Smith who had the intense and difficult job of holding everything in while reliving her character’s past. She was forced to “watch” moments of her life without partaking in them until the climactic song “Telephone Wire,” a desperate plea by the 43-year-old daughter to her dead father to make the memory of their last conversation different from the empty farce it was. Smith allowed herself to lose all semblance of emotional control as her character grew more and more desperate. Left alone in the car at the song’s end, she was a broken person, knowing exactly what would come next for her father and herself: his suicide. It was a painful, powerful performance.
H.B.Ward (Dick, Evening At the Talkhouse, A Red Orchid Theatre)
When we first met Dick, who had come to a reunion of those involved in a play years back both drunk and periodically wretching loudly and throwing his arms around like a wild man, it was clear that Ward’s character was going to be somehow central to the play’s focus. His over-the-top performance was precisely what this part required, and the audiences awaited his every moment of awakening from drunken comas to join the festivities. By the time he got to his final, powerful and revelatory monologue, he had us completely primed for it with one of the most solid pieces of acting of the year.
Alex Weisman (Jordan, Significant Other, About Face and Theatre Wit)
Alex Weisman, in this play, was so sweet and so moving that you wanted to reach out from your seat and hug him. When his character, Jordan, experienced brief happiness, Weisman’s eyes lit up brighter than the disco ball used for the wedding receptions and his face became one giant smile. And when his pent-up frustration escaped, he let that show, too, with every element of his being, his entire body a masterpiece of tension and pain. The play opened the day after Weisman won a Jeff Award; his performance here made it easy to see why.
And here are some other performances that are most definitely worth a mention:
Ian Bedford (Eddie Carbone, A View From the Bridge, Goodman Theatre)
Tiffany Bedwell (May, Fool For Love, Facility Theatre)
Catherine Combs (Catherine, A View From the Bridge, Goodman Theatre)
Kyrie Courter (Marie Christine, Marie Christine, Boho Theatre)
Amanda Drinkall (Laura, Significant Other, About Face and Theatre Wit)
Nicole Laurenzi (Violet, Violet, Griffin Theatre)
David Anthony Marshall (Samuel, Foxfinder, Interrobang Theatre)