A Robust Theater Season Gathers Steam

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof -- Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (Maggie) and Gregory Wooddell (Brick)

Last fall and all winter long, Washington theaters showed their stuff – from Studio Theatre’s gritty “Between Riverside and Crazy” to Shakespeare Theatre’s delightful “Kiss Me Kate.” An abundance of memorable productions has captivated audiences, but fasten your seatbelts: There’s more.

Whether you eagerly scan local season’s announcements for prospects or haven’t even considered buying a ticket, it’s a great time to see what’s in store this spring. Here’s just a sample of shows that have something special.

Yes, I’m a Fan

Actors and directors become your favorites for both the work they produce and the pieces they choose. So this spring I’m taking a chance on “110 in the Shade” at Ford’s Theatre simply to see Lynn Olivera, a gifted actress and singer who rarely gets a star turn. As the “eternally single Lizzie Curry” she’ll be awakened by a charming stranger in this musical scored by the creators of “The Fantasticks.”

Next I’ll head out to Round House Theatre for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” a production with Helen Hayes Award-winning director Mitchell Hebert at the helm. His cast features several local favorites, including Gregory Wooddell, who is familiar to Shakespeare Theatre audiences and anyone who saw his remarkable performances in “Stage Kiss” at Round House or Signature’s “Cabaret.” In addition to Wooddell’s Brick, the fabulous Rick Foucheux and Sarah Marshall – recently seen sparring and bonding as siblings in Studio’s “The Apple Family Plays” – will play Big Daddy and Big Momma.

Foucheux also returns to Theater J this spring for “Another Way Home,” a drama about the search for a child who’s missing from summer camp. The play’s cast includes the versatile Naomi Jacobson, last seen as Mrs. Drudge, the hilariously surly housekeeper in Shakespeare Theatre’s “Real Inspector Hound.”

Another Washington-area treasure returns this spring. The ubiquitous Ed Gero follows his indelible Scrooge with his debut in “The Nether,” a futuristic crime drama at Woolly Mammoth. Gero was so convincing as Antonin Scalia in Arena’s production of “The Originalist” last year that one senator mistakenly posted Gero’s picture in his online tribute to the justice.

Serge Seiden, who wowed Washington with his productions of Studio’s “Bad Jews” and “The Apple Family Plays” two years running, will direct Mosaic’s “When January Feels Like Summer” about the unlikely collision of five young lives in Anacostia and on H Street. He’ll also make a welcome return to family fare with Adventure Theatre’s “Jumanji,” building on the success of his Helen Hayes Award-nominated productions of “A Little House Christmas” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

Mathew Gardiner, another director who captured my heart with his masterful revival of “West Side Story,” brings “La Cage Aux Folles” to Signature Theatre in June. And as I noted in my season roundup last September, I’m eagerly anticipating Ethan McSweeny’s Studio debut directing Deirdre Kinahan’s “Moment.”

Ask the Experts

Every great show begins with inspiring material. While an esteemed award is no guarantee of a winning production, it offers assurance that a show stands on sound footing.

“Disgraced,” opening at Arena Stage in April, earned a Pulitzer Prize for Ayad Akhtar’s story about the son of south Asian immigrants grappling with the conflicts between his success and cultural identity. As a bonus, in this production Nehal Joshia finally takes on a leading role, following his impressive performances in “Mother Courage and Her Children” and “Oklahoma!” at Arena and in Shakespeare Theatre’s “Man of La Mancha.”

Arena also presents “All the Way,” which won a 2014 Tony Award for its take on the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Look forward to Jack Willis assuming the role of LBJ on the heels of his formidable performance in Arena’s “Sweat.”

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Obie-winning “An Octoroon” promises provocative humor in what The New York Post called an “entertainingly demented” satire on the legacy of slavery. And don’t forget Signature Theater’s “flick,” a play I noted last September for winning an Obie Award in 2013 and a Pulitzer Prize in 2014.

OK, I’ll Bite

Amid the tried and true, many companies offer familiar material with a twist. Theater Alliance re-envisions two popular plays about African-American youths – “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” and “Word Becomes Flesh” – by juxtaposing them in repertory. Through poetry, music, and movement the first play comprises 20 poems about the triumphs and challenges of seven black women, while the second presents a single father’s letters about becoming a man.

At the Folger, “District Merchants” reimagines “The Merchant of Venice.” Aaron Posner, winner of four Helen Hayes Awards for outstanding direction, wrote this adaptation – a comedy of sorts about predatory lending, love, and mercy, set in Washington during Elizabethan, post-Civil War, and modern times – all at once. In another novel take on the Bard, The Reduced Shakespeare Company returns to the Folger with the premiere of “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged),” the latest of Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s witty distillations of revered texts (including the Bible) into wordplay, puns, and physical comedy.

Other shows bring unusual performance methods. At Studio, physical theatre artist Geoff Sobelle teams with scenic designer Steven Dufala for a “performance-installation” called “The Object Lesson,” battling boxes stacked to the ceiling in a funny but poignant exploration of the human relationship with things. I’d be more skeptical if Time Out New York hadn’t said, “Go to the show ... You won’t be prepared for how beautiful it is.”

Faction of Fools Theatre Company at Gallaudet University hearkens back to the Renaissance, infusing its production of Moliere’s “The Miser” with its signature commedia dell’arte, a high-energy, physical style of performance that marries the play’s rapid-fire dialogue with improvisation by masked actors. This intriguing troupe won the 2012 Helen Hayes Award for outstanding emerging theatre company and regularly earns glowing reviews.

Don’t forget the kids

In addition to Adventure Theatre’s “Jumanji,” the Puppet Co.’s “Beauty and the Beast” offers high-quality family entertainment featuring a cast of large marionettes. The production won a Citation of Excellence from the American Center of the Union Internationale de la Marionette and has played to enthralled children and families nationwide.

Another fairy tale comes to life at Imagination Stage in its second collaboration with the Washington Ballet. Choreographed by the ballet company’s longtime artistic director Septime Webre and former associate artistic director David Palmer, “The Little Mermaid” follows this team’s 2012’s highly acclaimed “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe.”

Washington’s theater offerings seem to grow more expansive, diverse, and fascinating with every year. With the 2015-16 season the momentum just keeps building.

Disgraced at Arena Stage.

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.