2022 was a unique year. I saw fewer plays than ever before. That’s better than the COVID years, when I saw no live theater at all.
The pandemic also accounted for my paltry number this year. Being in what we call the “Danger Demographic,” my husband and I were reluctant to sit for hours in a closed room with a bunch of strangers — especially after masks were no longer required. We still wear them everywhere…even when we were in Spain for two months — and we missed a number of probably excellent San Diego theater offerings.
So, with all those disclaimers, and proceeding from the 70 shows I did see, here is my list of the Top 10 (or 11) productions of 2022 in no particular order. I’m taking the liberty of choosing 11; I recently announced my retirement, and after 40 years, this will be my last list of this kind.
“Trouble in Mind” – The Old Globe. It took 46 years for Alice Childress’s provocative drama to make it to Broadway, long after she died, and not until 2021. Her play-within-a-play concerns a white director helming a mostly Black cast. The piece they’re rehearsing is rife with Black stereotypes and white saviorism. There’s condescension and racism in the rehearsal room, too. Expertly directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, this American classic couldn’t be more timely: it’s about many things, but mostly, what it means to be a Black artist in America.
“Water by the Spoonful” – Cygnet Theatre. Thoughtfully directed by Meg DeBoard. Six damaged, alienated souls, addicts all, try to make some semblance of human connection in an internet chat room. They don’t always succeed. But the message of this segment of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy is: Reach out, push on, no matter how incomprehensible the world may seem. What’s important is bonding and helping and healing.
“Here There Are Blueberries” – La Jolla Playhouse. A chilling piece of history in a world premiere, co-written and directed by Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project. Based on a photo album anonymously donated to the United States Holocaust Museum in 2007 that showed hair-raising pictures from Auschwitz. The album was something of a fond, smiling remembrance from one officer showing how, while starvation, torture and cremation loomed nearby, the top brass and female office workers had parties and laughed and ate berries. The unavoidable takeaway from these horrific stories is that, right now, we mustn’t let down our guard and ignore the heinous acts going on around us.
“Witnesses” — CCAE Theatricals at California Centre for the Arts. Escondido. Another Holocaust-themed work, showing that Anne Frank wasn’t the only teenager writing about the Nazi-era times and terrors. The new musical, conceived by Jordan Beck, managing producer of the impressive new company, is taken from the diaries of five young people, age 12-18. Technically complex and emotionally riveting, the production was beautifully performed by a cast of talented young people, expertly directed by J. Scott Lapp, artistic director of the new company, which debuted this year with a knockout trifecta of shows.
”Desert Rock Garden” – New Village Arts. A new play, by first-time playwright Roy Sekigahama, whose parents were interned in the U.S. during WWII. His play is set in Utah, in one of the ten Japanese internment camps where, in one of the darker, more xenophobic and ghastly chapters of American history, Japanese-descended men, women and children, mostly from the San Francisco Bay area, were incarcerated behind high walls and barbed wire for 3½ awful years. In this heartfelt, intimate story, a rebellious young girl meets a crusty old man. Both estranged from their families, both lonely and resentful, they become mutually dependent. In this deeply moving theater piece, sensitively directed by Yari Cervas, the girl’s recollections from years later serve to underscore the resilience and spirit of hope and survival of those captives in terrible times.
“Blue Period” – OnStage Playhouse. Pablo Picasso was a very young man when he and his closest friend, Carles Casagemas, traveled from Barcelona to Paris at the turn of the 20th century to carouse and paint. It was all drinking and good times at first, but then Casagemas took a dark turn, which would haunt Picasso for the rest of his life, and gave rise to the famous, somber art phase of the title. Another new play, another world premiere, this one by New York-born San Diegan Charles Borkhuis. A terrific production, under the assured, compelling direction of OnStage artistic director James P. Darvas
“The October Night of Johnny Zero” – Backyard Renaissance Theatre. The first play by Backyard co-founder and artistic director Francis Gercke, partially based on his own childhood experiences (which is a pretty scary prospect), helmed by the incomparable Richard Baird. Two high school semi-friends, an alcoholic mother, and a spooky specter, trapped in a rundown house in the midst of a potent thunderstorm. Deathly secrets are revealed by all, but no resolution is at hand. This is one harrowing night (with help from well-designed lighting and sound)
“Mother of the Maid” – Moxie Theatre. This 2018 play by Jane Anderson is all about the ferocity of Motherlove. The maid is the charismatic, ultimately sanctified Joan of Arc; we see the strange, stubborn, outspoken girl, who’s given to voices and visions, through her mother’s eyes. A fascinating conception, excellently realized at Moxie, under the astute direction of Desireé Clarke.
“Iron” – The Roustabouts Theatre Company. Rona Munro’s 2002 peek inside the brutal, claustrophobic prison system, where a mother is serving a life sentence for the murder of her husband. Her estranged, directionless daughter, after a 20-year separation, comes to visit. It doesn’t go well. But the daughter perseveres; she’s looking for roots, connection and some memory of her father. Director Jacole Kitchen keeps the tension mounting, between the more-similar-than-different mother and daughter — played, in fact, by real-life mother and daughter Rosina Reynolds and Kate Rose Reynolds, who give superlative performances. We also get insights into what it’s like to be a guard in this kind of facility. Set in Scotland, it could easily be one of our prisons. Another view of the powerful bond between mother and daughter.
“Hadestown” – brought to us by Broadway San Diego. The fabulously elaborate national touring production of this spectacular eight-time Tony Award winner of 2019 was based on the original concept album of singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. Created in collaboration with superb multisensory director Rachel Chavkin, the piece re-conceives the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and their descent into hell/Hades, interlaced with the mythical story of the god Hades, King of the Underworld and Persephone, his abducted wife. A riveting tale that includes oblique references to climate change and mistreatment of workers. Brilliant on every level. And unforgettable.
“The Remarkable Mister Holmes” – North Coast Repertory Theatre. We need to throw a little comedy into the mix here. In this case, a musical comedy, another world premiere created by San Diegans: Omri Schein and David Ellenstein (who also directs). Schein wrote the clever, Holmesian lyrics and Daniel Lincoln composed the catchy pastiche score. There are the expected murders and plenty of dastardly derring-do, with multiple characters played by a wonderful, malleable, multi-character cast of nine. There’s some welcome female energy, too — in the person of Dr. Watson’s sister, Sheila. No comic stone is left unturned. The perfect escape for these trying times.
Overall, lots of dark drama, an apt reflection of the past few years: our collective malaise, anxiety, depression and fear.
One other show embodies a lot of what got us where we are as a country and culture: unfettered greed. This dazzling piece was presented outside San Diego, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, but its magnificence cannot be overlooked. “The Lehman Trilogy” is a phenomenal amalgam of great acting (three performers, morphing into multiple generations of one family, forebears of the disgraced, bankrupted Lehman Brothers banking dynasty), combined with a sensational set, wildly imaginative scenic and lighting design — and a scathing indictment of capitalism. A brilliant cautionary tale, to be sure.
So, even in a truncated year, there were stellar moments on San Diego stages. There always are. This is, don’t forget, one of the country’s major theater metropolises. You owe it to yourself to check out some local offerings, especially with so many world premieres originating here.
My hope is that my annual Best of the Year list will make you want to go to the theater. I won’t be writing about San Diego theater anymore, but I’ll certainly still be going to the theater, and I hope to see you there!
Pat Launer, a member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. Having just retired, she will no longer be writing reviews, but an archive of her features, previews and reviews (going back to 1990) can be found at www.patlauner.com.