Defiance. The second play in a projected trilogy (the first is Doubt, which took the Pulitzer Prize and will be staged at the Denver Center in spring), Defiance examines the state of the U.S. Marine Corps in 1971, when the Vietnam War had lost all vestige of legitimacy for most Americans, troop morale was low, drug use and racist incidents high. Big questions are raised here about conscience, obedience and what's worth fighting for, but discussion and argument aren't the same thing as drama. The plot centers around a conflict at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where Lieutenant Colonel Morgan Littlefield yearns equally for advancement and glory. Learning of racial conflict in his camp, he asks Lee King, a young black captain, for help. King informs him of a housing problem faced by black recruits; Littlefield solves it, and eventually tries to promote King. But King doesn't want the promotion. He doesn't want to be a spokesman for his race. Having been shattered by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., he wants to be left alone and remain invisible. The climax — and the most vivid scene in the play — comes when a young private reveals to the captain a scandal so egregious that he is forced to abandon his aloofness and take action. But the resolution comes far too fast and easily. Presented by the Arvada Center through November 4, Black Box Theater, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org. Reviewed October 11.
John & Jen. John and Jen are not lovers, as the title of this intimate musical might lead you to believe, but siblings, children of a violently abusive father. Jen does everything she can to protect her little brother. But when she leaves for college, becoming a free-spirited, pot-smoking hippie and traveling to Canada with a young man who's avoiding the draft, John is left feeling bitter and betrayed. He has always half-identified with their father, even while fearing him, and he now decides to join the Navy, to be a man, to go to war. He dies in Vietnam. By the second act, Jen's lover has deserted her. She's back in the United States and raising their son — whom she's named John. Filled with guilt over the death of her brother, she holds this John stiflingly close. But he turns out to be a spirited young man with ideas of his own, and clashes are inevitable. Both Gina Schuh-Turner and Mark Giles turn in wonderfully committed performances and, overall, this is a fine, absorbing evening of theater that evokes themes none of us can escape, themes having to do with family and obligation to others, the need to protect our children and the need to let them fly — in short, the blessed and cursed complexity of love. Presented by Nonesuch Theater through October, 216 Pine Street, Fort Collins, 1-970-224-0444, www.nonesuchtheater.com. Reviewed September 6.
Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical. Scott Beyette, Alicia Dunfee, Brian Norber, Bren. Eyestone Burron, A.K. Klimpke and Barb Reeves are seasoned, energetic and talented performers, stalwarts of the troupe that's kept Boulder's Dinner Theatre hopping all these years, and they're having the time of their mid-life with Jim and Bob Waltons' script. Perhaps the most memorable number is "Biological Clock," in which Dunfee's character, frantically wanting to have a baby, attempts to coax, bully and force her date into giving up his sperm. There's also a terrific skit in which a middle-aged couple laments their far-from-empty nest, now occupied by a grown-up slacker son. Like all the best humor, it's true as well as amusing, and there's a sweetness at its core. A few of the other sketches flop, and some of the humor is oddly retro, particularly when a trio of men try to reclaim their youthful athleticism in a baseball practice only to be interrupted by simultaneous phone calls from their wives; their humble "Yes, dears" would have drawn chuckles from the old guys in the Borscht Belt. Still, Mid-Life! is far more hip than most dinner-theater fare. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through October 28, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed September 20.
Thom Pain (based on nothing)
My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Rachel Corrie has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since her death in Gaza in 2003, when the 23-year-old was run over by an Israeli soldier as she attempted to prevent the bulldozing of a Palestinian home. But Corrie was more than just a symbol; she was a genuinely unique young spirit. This play was put together by English actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner from Corrie's journals and e-mails; it's clear that the world lost a lot when it lost this strong, individual voice. Much of the power of this production stems from the fact that you can't separate what you're seeing on stage from what you know —- that this marvelous young woman, who spoke of death and hope in the same breathless moment, would die a cruel, violent death. "Love you. Really miss you," she wrote in a letter to her mother. "I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outside our house and you and me inside." With her graceful hands and gentle dignity, Julie Rada perfectly embodies the character of Rachel. Director Brian Freeland gives us just enough light to provide a clear view of Rada's face, and she pitches her voice just loud enough to be heard comfortably, but you still have to lean in a little to catch everything. Along with the simplicity of the set, this restraint adds to the power of the evening. Presented by Countdown to Zero through November 17, Bindery/space, 770 22nd Street, 720-938-0466, www.countdowntozero.org. Reviewed October 4.
My Old Lady. The play begins like a clash-of-cultures comedy of manners as Mathias Gold, a penniless, middle-aged American, enters the stylish Paris apartment he's inherited from his father and learns that the place comes with its previous owner, who is entitled to live on the premises until her death. Madame Mathilde Giffard is 94 and has lived a life of culture and adventure that includes a long-term affair with Mathias's father. In her mind, this was a romantic and magnificent liaison, but Mathias takes the revelation badly, sinking deeper and deeper into drink and self-pity. The tone of the plays changes. Now we're witnessing an examination of the meaning of love, the effects of private choices in the world and the tainted legacy passed from father to son and mother to daughter. As Matthias begins to have feelings for Mathilde's daughter Chloe, he realizes that she, too, is profoundly damaged. My Old Lady doesn't moralize, and you find your sympathies swinging back and forth among the three protagonists. This is one of the best things Miners Alley has done. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through October 27, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden. 303-935-3044, www.minersalley.com. Reviewed October 18.
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Thom Paine (based on nothing). Will Eno's play is a strange, hour-and-some-long monologue. It contains some passages about a sad little boy and others about a failed love affair, and some viewers have seen it as the story of the monologuist's (pain-filled) life, told with much twisting and indirection. But it doesn't seem that there's actually anyone in front of us on the almost bare stage. Although actor Erik Tieze is up there saying words, he doesn't feel human. He comes across as a husk, a ghost, a mocking, ever-changing, constantly self-inventing presence. He leads us through dozens of familiar tropes, ideas and images, picking them up, distorting them, tossing them away. He prompts us to feel something — pleasure, empathy, sadness — and then mocks us for feeling it. In one of his stories, the little boy is drawing in a puddle with a stick when he sees his beloved dog accidentally electrocuted. Later, the child is stung by a swarm of bees. Although the pain is excruciating, he doesn't associate it with the insects. He thinks they have arrived to help him, and rubs them against his skin. We feel compassion, even as we register the implausibility of the story. And he has a thought to add about childhood suffering: "Isn't it wonderful how we never recover?" he says. The bottom line? Thom Pain is brilliant. The language is beautiful in the exact clean, precise, musical way that Samuel Beckett is beautiful. And Tieze's performance is mesmerizing, utterly dynamic and wonderfully precise and controlled. Presented by Modern Muse Theatre Company through October 28, Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-780-7836. Reviewed October 18.