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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

How We May Know Him.This is an original play by a local author that tells the story of four women: Val, a Christian zealot who stalks the stage in a stifling, fustian dress; Simone, a new-agey television host, desperately concerned with her appearance; Nicola, a soldier of fortune who works for a shadowy Blackwater-type corporation; and Nicola's partner, the sometimes waspish but usually lost and bemused Wren. Although all of these women are beautifully portrayed in the Paragon production, you're not called on to empathize with any of them. This brain-tease of a play acts on your cerebral cortex, not your guts, and the plot raises more questions than it answers. It is indubitably about evil, and Val, superbly and implacably played by Emily Paton Davies, is its apotheosis. But though she has an antagonist in the form of Nicola, this is not a straightforward battle between good and evil. Nicola is hardly a shining, avenging angel; she's a paid mercenary. Despite all the metaphoric stuff, the script is anything but murky. It's razor sharp, and often funny in completely unexpected ways. In all, a seamlessly riveting production. Presented through May 19 by Paragon Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 303-300-2210, Reviewed May 3.

Ragtime. Leonard Barrett has taken over the role of Coalhouse Walker, previously performed by Jeffrey Nickelson, in Ragtime at Boulder's Dinner Theatre. Nickelson was a powerful Walker with a resonant baritone; Barrett's portrayal is equally good and altogether different. He's a smaller, slighter figure than Nickelson, and on first appearance doesn't dominate the stage or exude authority in the same way. But he's fascinating in his own right. Coalhouse Walker is the enigmatic heart of Ragtime -- a black musician who has just won back the woman he loves and their child when he faces a vicious racist insult. His rage is justifiable, but the murderous rampage it inspires is not. Yet because his story is set in a time when American workers were fighting for a living wage and Jewish immigrants were struggling to survive in their mean tenements, he's on some level a revolutionary hero, and he remains charismatic throughout. You find yourself watching him when the other characters are talking, wondering what's going on behind his eyes. Aided by heart-stirring music, Barrett makes Walker charming and sympathetic, as well as dangerous. A jazz singer, he brings a supple, fluid approach to both his acting and his singing. Ragtime was excellent when it opened, but now it's even better -- and this despite the fact that the company is coping with changes both planned and unplanned. Joanie Brosseau-Beyette, who was a funny, ditzy Evelyn Nesbit, is now starring in Evita at the Country Dinner Playhouse; Tia Cope plays Nesbit with a little less zizz but a touch of appealing gravity. The indefatigable performer-choreographer Alicia Dunfee broke her ankle last week, and the rest of the cast has been taking over her lines and moves as necessary. Yet the show is clean, swift and polished. Over the past two months, most of the cast members have settled deeply into their roles. Shelly Cox-Robie's performance as Mother remains sweet and clear; Reynelda Snell still takes off the top of your head with her singing; Wayne Kennedy makes Tateh's rags-to-riches story as human as ever; and John Scott Clough's Father is even more complex and interesting than it was before. And on the night I attended, the energy and conviction of Lea L. Chapman and the rest of the ensemble brought the packed house to its feet. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 26, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000,

Red Herring. Set in 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson were vying for the presidency, Senator Joe McCarthy was busy with his anti-Communist witch hunts, and America was humming songs from South Pacific, Oklahoma! and The King and I, Red Herring is a piece of wit that exists on several levels. It's a spoof on the era and an homage to film noir, featuring a square-jawed FBI agent called Frank and his tough but quietly smoldering sweetheart, Maggie, a detective. In addition, author Michael Hollinger has a thing or two that he wants to say about marriage, and he also tosses in several references to Moby-Dick. This is an ingenious and funny play, and Firehouse has fielded a fair amount of acting talent to serve it. But the production needs more specificity and finesse; though Trina Magness as Maggie and Ed Cord as Frank infuse their performances with a dry, self-referential wit, the actors are given to a bit too much flailing and yelling. Presented by Firehouse Theater Company through May 26, the John Hand Theater, CFU's Lowry Campus, 7653 First Place, 303-562-3232, Reviewed May 3.

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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