Dec. 28 2016 12:20 AM

Local theater helps community make sense of turbulent year

Owosso Community Players’ production of ‘80s musical romp “Rock of Ages” ranks among City Pulse theater critic Paul Wozniak’s top shows of 2016.
Courtesy Photo

Oh, 2016. Who knew that the joy and pain of theater would be the necessary catharsis to help us process this year?

In their own way, local productions became an emotional roadmap for the tumultuous year. In January, two productions explored grief and loss in profoundly different ways. First, Riverwalk Theatre’s production of “All My Sons,” Arthur Miller’s riveting commentary on the power of denial and the fringes of ethics and personal responsibility. Jeff Magnuson and Michael Hays played off each other as son and father, but the singular force in this production was Eve Davidson as the matriarch of the family. As a woman wrapped in the naïve notion that her missing son will return, Davidson’s performance was especially heartbreaking as her character was forced to confront the awful truth. The detailed façade of a large country home, designed by Leroy Cupp, prompted one audience member to walk up and closely examine the set during the intermission.

In “The Women of Lockerbie,” also staged by Riverwalk Theatre, Jeff Magnuson and Janet Colson played a husband and wife dealing with the horrific loss of their son in the Lockerbie airplane bombing, desperately searching the wreckage for any piece of their son to bury. Gini Larson played the leader of a group of women who washed the clothes of the dead to return to the families. While the deaths described in “The Women of Lockerbie” are extremely traumatic, the women’s tender and empathetic response to the trauma made this play hopeful instead of depressing.

But 2016 wasn’t all dark and serious. Remember when the Cubs won the World Series? And then there was Owosso Community Player’s nearly sensational production of “Rock of Ages”. From a detailed dive bar set that looked ripped from the Broadway production to a stunning cast of Michigan natives who could sing and dance with the energy and range of seasoned professionals, so much of “Rock of Ages” was carefree and blissful. Even chronic sound and electrical issues couldn’t stop the cast and crew from rocking through the night.

Over the Ledge also provided some lighter fare, offering great performances in “Matt and Ben” and “Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning, Juliet).” “Goodnight Desdemona” featured perhaps my favorite performance of the year, Anna Szabo as an Amazonian princess version of Desdemona. Like the standout performer in a lackluster “Saturday Night Live” sketch, Szabo committed to her character with zeal, cutting through the show’s goofiness with dead-on seriousness. It was a master class in character integrity while still being deceptively hilarious.

But maybe the most 2016 show of all was Michigan State University Department of Theatre’s production of “Punk Rock,” where the ending seemed unthinkable to the characters but inevitable to the audience. This intense, bleak portrait of a disturbed teenager planning to murder several of his schoolmates was point-blank drama fired directly at the audience. Peter Verhaeghe’s stunning set design foreshadowed the dark ending to come, with its vandalized and authentically aged private school study room, and director Rob Roznowski’s masterful control over his cast meant that scenes moved seamlessly at a breathtaking pace. Unlike “All My Sons” or “The Women of Lockerbie,” the violent deaths are on stage in “Punk Rock,” and the audience shares in the trauma of the characters.

These shows — and so many others I didn’t have space to mention here — helped audiences understand and cope with the world around them. The real world, especially this year, can feel like a dark and unforgiving place. But on the local level, there is hope in knowing that the actors and technicians behind every production share the same goal: re-examining and questioning the world around them through the power of theater.