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.
How I Learned to Drive. "Look at me," Uncle Peck pleads to his young niece, the narrator-protagonist of How I Learned to Drive. "Listen to me." And that's just what she does. Deeply and over a period of years, she ponders her relationship with the uncle who first molested her when she was eleven, a relationship that wound up destroying his life and forever damaging hers. Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning script -- which was also presented at Curious Theatre Company's inaugural season ten years ago -- is yet another tale of sexual abuse remembered, but it is told with depth and nuance. The narrator, salaciously nicknamed L'il Bit by her sex-obsessed grandparents, has grown up with very little in the way of teaching or nurturance. The one adult who's unfailingly present and attentive is her uncle. This is a love story -- and a deeply unsettling one. Its genius lies in the way it explodes all our tidy little generalizations and seduces us into empathizing with the victimizer as well as the victim. The story itself is fairly straightforward, but Vogel's telling of it is not. She moves backward and forward in time, punctuates the scenes with phrases from a driving manual, uses deliberate stereotypes, periodically allows the action to veer from deadly serious to almost farcical. Beautifully acted by C. Kelly Leo and Marcus Waterman, this is, for the most part, a first-rate production and a good way to mark the close of Curious's first decade. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 20, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed September 13.
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.