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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This is one ugly family that's gathered in Big Daddy's Mississippi Delta home to celebrate the patriarch's 65th birthday. What almost everyone except Big Daddy himself knows is that he's dying of cancer. There's Big Mama, operating in an acute state of denial; son Gooper, accompanied by his fecund wife, Mae and brood of children; and Brick, the favored son of Big Daddy and Big Mama, attempting to drink himself into oblivion. Watching everyone with a calculating eye is Maggie, Brick's sexy wife, who's determined that Brick, rather than Gooper, will inherit the family's huge wealth. We're in Tennessee Williams's South, an overheated place seething with rage, sexual repression and what Brick and Big Daddy call "mendacity." The characters are totemic, the language passionate and poetic. This production is prosaic, however, with the exception of Chris Reid's white-hot performance as Brick. Reid knows when to hold back and when to explode. He knows how to deal with silence -- whether using it as a weapon or a shield, or simply vanishing into it. When an actor works from a place this deep, he can't put a foot wrong. Presented by the Aurora Fox Arts Center through May 13, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora. 303-739-1970, Reviewed April 19.

Dead Man Walking. We are one of the last Western nations to retain the death penalty, but you don't hear much about it these days. Where executions were once front-page news, they're now relegated to single paragraphs far back in the paper -- if they're mentioned at all. In an attempt to bring light to the subject, Sister Helen Prejean published Dead Man Walking, an account of her work with death-row inmates; the book became a film in 1996. Actor Tim Robbins's version of the script is agitprop, though agitprop in an honorable tradition. It shows Sister Prejean, played here by Terry Ann Watts, being drawn inexorably into contact with Matt Poncelet, who killed a teenage boy and raped the boy's companion, then stood by while his partner murdered her. Scene by scene, we're led through the issues surrounding capital punishment: The loneliness of death row inmates and the inhuman bureaucratic process that has a living man measured for his coffin are weighed against the agony of the victims' families and their demands for revenge. We're also privy to Sister Prejean's spiritual uncertainty in the face of all this, and her determination to bring something human -- empathy, conversation, a piece of music -- into the gray, equivocal world of death row. Although Watts gives a beautiful performance and Steve Pardun holds up his end as Poncelet, most of the rest of the cast seems to comprise non-actors, and this, coupled with the fact that the script needs trimming, makes for a long evening. Still, the Victorian should be commended for bringing attention to this important issue. Presented by Glass Slipper Productions and the Denver Victorian Playhouse through June 3, 4201 Hooker Street, 303-433-4343, Reviewed April 26.

Do I Hear a Waltz? Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim worked together once and once only: on this musical, with Rodgers writing the music and Sondheim the lyrics. For this reason, the Arvada Center's revival is worth seeing. Do I Hear a Waltz? is an odd hybrid. The title song, with its unabashed romanticism, is the only genuinely memorable number, but many of the other songs are both witty and tuneful. The plot is less effective. Leona Samish, a self-centered American tourist, arrives in Venice for a week's vacation and begins an affair with a married Italian, Renato Di Rossi. But Leona turns out to be too bratty and materialistic to earn her sweet week of ecstasy, and the dashing Renato is not only married, but a dealer in questionable money and merchandise. The performances are all solid; Jennifer DeDominici as Fioria, the pensione manager, is particularly compelling. Unfortunately, the sound system at the Arvada Center doesn't do justice to the music, which is the primary reason to see this play. Presented by the Arvada Center through May 13, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada. 720-898-7200, Reviewed April 26.


Capsule reviews

Ragtime. With this show, it feels as if Boulder's Dinner Theatre has opened the doors and let in a great whoosh of invigorating air. Artistic director Michael J. Duran picked one hell of a musical to stage, one that's based on an important book and marries a meaningful plot with a smart, perceptive script and terrific songs. Knowing he'd have trouble finding a full cast for Ragtime -- several of the most important characters are African-American -- he teamed up with Jeffrey Nickelson of Shadow Theatre Company and ended up hiring several Shadow actors, with Nickelson himself playing the enigmatic angel-devil Coalhouse Walker. The energy and discovery created by this fusion of talents is palpable on the stage. E. L. Doctorow's novel is about the lives of differing groups in America: citizen and immigrant, white and black, the privileged and the poor; historical events and specific historical figures are also woven into the action. This production is a joy, buoyed by strong performances, crammed with memorable moments and featuring musical numbers that span the spectrum from meltingly lovely to funny to wildly exhilarating. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 26, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, Reviewed March 22.

The Sweetest Swing in Baseball. Most fictional characters who find themselves in mental institutions struggle to get out, but when Dana Fielding, this play's artist-protagonist, arrives in one after a suicide attempt, she settles right in. Battered by the response to her latest exhibit, a couple of negative reviews and a general sense that her career is over -- not to mention the fact that her longtime lover has just left her -- Dana welcomes the shelter provided by the hospital. She quickly finds common ground with two fellow residents -- a homicidal psychotic named Gary, and Michael, a sweet-natured gay alcoholic. But Dana's insurance company will pay for no more than ten days of rehabilitation and, desperate to stay, she decides to pretend she's delusional. Helped by the advice of her new friends, she identifies herself to her therapist as Darryl Strawberry -- and impersonating the alcohol-plagued baseball star gives her courage and a sense of freedom. Director Wendy C. Goldberg has created a production as bright, clean and lively as a cartoon strip. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 26, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, Reviewed April 19.


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