A pilot who's been carrying out air strikes in Iraq and loving the solitary blue of the sky she inhabits is grounded when she becomes pregnant, then tasked with launching drone attacks from the safety of an air-conditioned trailer in the Nevada desert. Between the hours of excruciating boredom she endures and the vivid images of the dead and dying recorded by the drone camera, she begins to break down. Grounded, a brilliantly written, tough-minded exploration of the effect of war on a particular woman, couldn't be more timely, as the issue of PTSD becomes more and more pressing and veterans' organizations discover that the illness is affecting drone operators as well as soldiers in the field. Laura Norman turned in a brilliant, nerve-shattering performance as the Pilot.

Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 is filled with complex and fascinating characters, and one of the most fascinating, at least as played by Geoffrey Kent, is Hotspur. Though tough as nails, this hothead was as much joker as warrior. He was both tender and rough with the wife he loved, he punned relentlessly and fully appreciated his own wit, and he was willing to attack any male he encountered for any slight — big or small, real or imagined.

Hotspur's wife, Lady Kate, is usually played in Henry IV, Part 1 as a gentle charmer, and Jamie Ann Romero was indeed charming and gentle in the role. But underneath the charm, this was a strong-minded woman, more than capable of keeping the bull-headed husband she loved in check.

In the ironically named Lucky Me, Tom, played by Erik Sandvold, comes to the aid of Sara, a woman who claims to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, after she's fallen from a roof. He soon discovers that lightbulbs pop and fizzle in Sara's vicinity and that she hasn't had a hot meal for over twenty years because she can't handle a stove, knife or microwave. Tom, who works for the TSA at the airport, is determined to rescue Sara, even as her ailments threaten his own health and sanity. Sandvold was wonderfully strong and sympathetic — and also appealingly goofy — in this story of two fortyish people who've been beaten down by life but still entertain a flicker of hope that love is possible.

The character of Jane is at the heart of This, a bittersweet comedy. Widowed, she's having trouble coping with her young daughter and life in general — and she hasn't yet dealt with her husband's cremains. Jane is brittle, moody, cynical and quick to anger. It takes a complex actor to bring a complex woman like this to life; fortunately, Jessica Robblee is one of the most multi-layered performers we have. She gave a wired, vibrating performance in the role, every now and then allowing us just a glimpse of the real feeling behind Jane's defensiveness.

Josh Hartwell isn't one of those larger-than-life actors: no booming voice, no huge presence. His work is quiet, intelligent and subtle, and he slips into a role rather than overpowering it. All this made him perfect for the character Alan in This. Because he's a mnemonist and can remember entire conversations verbatim, Alan's become the chronicler for his group of friends, a charge that makes him a little crazy. He's anxious and neurotic in general, but, as played by Hartwell, also unexpectedly compassionate.

Having dressed up for a costume party, Sonia, played by Amelia White, transforms from a down-at-the-heels, enraged and self-pitying nobody in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike into a magnificent sequin-clad dowager. She's going to the party as the Wicked Queen as played by Maggie Smith on her way to the Oscars, she explains. White's utter delight in herself is glorious, and so infectious you can't help sharing it. The woman is full of piss and vinegar, and she may just be ready for love.

For our money, this smaller-scale version of Next to Normal was more moving and involving than the Broadway production that came through a while back: You cared more about the characters; the plot made more sense; the songs came across more clearly. Director Nick Sugar couldn't have found a stronger cast for this musical drama about a family torn apart by a mother's mental illness, and he coaxed wonderful performances from all of his actors.

Professor Bernard Barrow (aka Jeremy Make) explains the passion for William Blake that led him and his colleague Ellen Barker (Amanda Berg Wilson) to make love naked on the campus quad, an act that threatens their jobs. For him, Blake's poetry is pure, ecstatic celebration. Ellen, fighting a private torment, has a fiercer take. She sees Blake's message as "Fuck someone. Fuck someone hard." This is a very smart play. Written in verse, it takes well-deserved digs at academia while also asking viewers to contemplate a mystical poet they may not have thought about since high school. It takes two very talented actors to give the ideas emotional weight and make the verse sound like natural speech, while still coming across as funny, bewildered and very real human beings.

Best Opportunity to Meet English Teachers at the Theater

Colorado Shakespeare Festival

The literati are pretty much guaranteed to appear for each summer's three productions at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. And since professors often assign the shows to their students, you'll see lots of bright young people there as well. It all makes for a pleasant and congenial vibe in the lovely open-air Mary Rippon Theatre. But professors also go because these shows can open up new interpretations or illuminate a facet they think they know by heart. It's fun overhearing or joining their discussions at intermission — and just as much fun to listen when they take a poor production apart scene by scene.

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