Doubt. Set in 1964, when the second Vatican Council was convening, John Patrick Shanley's play follows a priest who may have molested a twelve-year-old boy — who just happens to be the sole black kid in the predominantly Irish and Italian school where the priest teaches — and the nun determined to see this priest humiliated. Both characters are complex, specific and ambiguous, and the script also touches on other significant themes: the hierarchy within the church; the church's treatment of women; the meaning of a godly life and whether it resides in strict adherence to the rules or in human love and compassion. There's nothing preachy about Doubt. It functions as a mystery — smart, taut and evocative — and as we attempt to unravel it, we find our sympathies swinging back and forth between the protagonists. We know Sister Aloysius, thin-lipped and judgmental, a woman who leaches all the joy, color and sensuality out of life; she'd be a caricature of the Roman Catholic Church, except that there's a certain magnificence to her coldness and courage. Aloysius has no proof of Father Flynn's guilt, only self-righteous certainty. So for most of the evening, as she pursues him like a black-winged fury, we're rooting for Flynn. It's Flynn who embraces the humanism and informality encouraged by Vatican Two. But there are moments when odd questions about him arise. Todd Coulter's Father Flynn has a twitchiness that makes you think there's something, maybe his sexuality, that he hasn't come to terms with; as Aloysius, Denise Burson Freestone almost quivers with righteousness. The brilliance of the script and these dedicated performances make this an evening worth experiencing. Presented by OpenStage Theatre and Company through January 31, Lincoln Center, 417 West Magnolia Street, Fort Collins, 1-970-221-6730, www.openstage.com. Reviewed January 22.
Girls Only. The trouble with Girls Only, a two-woman evening of conversation, skits, singing, improvisation and audience participation, is that it's so relentlessly nice. Creator-performers Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein have worked together for many years; at some point, they read their early diaries to each other and were transfixed by the similarities and differences they found in them, as well as the insights they gained into their own psyches and the travails of puberty. This theater piece was developed from that material — but not all of that material. "I purposely don't read every diary entry in the show, because it turns out I was kind of mean, and I don't want to be mean," Klein told an interviewer. But mean is funny, and when you cut it out entirely, what do you have to joke about? Girly pink bedrooms, purses, bras, skinny models in glossy magazines. Every time they tell a story with the tiniest bite to it, Gehring and Klein — both talented and appealing stage performers — move instantly to reassure us that they don't mean it. At one point Klein relates an interesting tale about how she came to possess the badly taxidermied body of an electrocuted squirrel as a child; the minute she's completed this funny, freaky moment in an otherwise highly predictable evening, she gives a pouty, don't-get-me-wrong grin and sweetly caresses the squirrel's head. There's enough good material here for a tight, funny, one-hour-long show, but this one stretches on and on, as if Klein and Gehring had been determined to throw every single joke and piece of shtick that occurred to them in the script. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed September 18.
The Producers. How on earth can Boulder's Dinner Theatre, which does not have hundreds of thousands of dollars at its disposal, compete with the big, glitzy Broadway version of The Producers? Not with tech and design, obviously, nor the slickness of the big showstoppers. But this production has something that's missing from the big touring production: sheer exuberance, an exuberance that in many ways is closer to Mel Brooks's original impulse. The Producers tells the story of a Broadway producer who realized he could make more money from a flop than a hit and immediately sought out the worst script he could find: a tribute to Adolf Hitler. The idea first saw life as a 1968 movie, a movie in which Brooks stuck a fat, garlicky, Jewish thumb right into Hitler's eye. With the irrepressible Wayne Kennedy playing producer Max Bialystock and Scott Beyette as his bewildered but eventually ecstatic sidekick, Leo Bloom, the BDT cast puts the raucous, iconoclastic jump right back into the show. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through March 7, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed December 4.
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Rabbit Hole. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is known for his absurdist humor, impossible characters, unexpected quirks. But Rabbit Hole is a serious and entirely conventional drama dealing with grief — perhaps the worst grief possible, the death of a child. Bereaved mother Becca is a rigid perfectionist, given to baking sophisticated treats. She has packed away photographs of Danny, the four-year-old son killed by a car when he ran into the street after the family dog; she has given away the dog. She seems to have everything under control as she folds Danny's little tops, pants and onesies for charity. She refuses to reminisce about him, and interrupts sharply when anyone else seems about to do so. Her husband, Howie, copes by going to a support group, but he, too, seems to be functioning all right. He's pleasant and affable with Izzy, Becca's sister, and with Becca's mother, Nat — who has also suffered the loss of a son, though under very different circumstances. But every now and then, Howie or Becca snaps, usually into uncontrollable rage. You have to applaud Lindsay-Abaire's resolate lack of sentimentality; the tone is set by Becca's self-control, in the face of which emotional effusions would be vulgar. Still, what's missing from this script is an imaginative leap. Even so, under the direction of Christy Montour-Larson, Curious has staged an impeccable production, with Rachel Fowler as a nicely understated Becca and Erik Sandvold as Howie. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 14, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed January 15.
Shining City. Playwright Conor McPherson is a poet of loneliness. In Shining City, a patient, John, visits a therapist, an ex-priest named Ian. John is trying to explain something that can't be explained — that he saw the ghost of his wife after she'd died in a traffic accident, a specific figure in a red coat, half hidden by a door. Throughout this recitation and those that follow, Ian is oddly detached; he doesn't bother with the empathetic prompts therapists usually use, though he is remarkably assiduous in anticipating John's needs, filling a water glass, gesturing toward a seat, proffering Kleenex. After the session, when Ian's girlfriend appears to ask why he's abandoned her and their baby, the gulf between the two is chilling. Eventually, we learn about the silences between John and his doomed wife, as well as something about Ian's own stifled proclivities. McPherson's language constantly attempts to communicate the ineffable, and his ghosts are an extension of this attempt: If there are no words to frame reality, it makes sense to resort to the supernatural. The characters in Shining City speak in stops and starts; they stutter and repeat, and John produces great waterfalls of words. But beneath all this, you hear a melancholy, hypnotic and eternal music. The actors — Josh Hartwell as Ian, Ken Street as John, and Laura Norman as Ian's girlfriend, Neasa — give breath and humanity to these complex and enigmatic characters. Their silences are as eloquent as the words they speak; we don't think of them as acting on stage, but simply as living and being in front of us. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through February 15, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, www.minersalley.com. Reviewed January 15.