Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 1998

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the landscape was littered with newspapers and other media venues, and opening night theater seats were crammed with expectant critics — more than a dozen of them, waiting to be amused, amazed, entertained, enthralled.   Every year, all those critics huddled together in a Circle, and offered garlands (of sorts) to many deserving, burgeoning and blossoming theatrical talents.

But then, a chill wind blew through the land; newspapers merged or died or disappeared, and critics started dropping like flies. Now, there are only a handful of stalwart survivors, and the struggling heroes of the stage go unsung.  

And so, in recognition of their valiant and often thrilling efforts, we hereby bestow on them the soon-to-be-coveted Patté Award for Theatre Excellence (because they ain’t chopped liver!)

The following citations (listed in no particular order) represent the best of the year, not one per category, but several, because this is a theater town, and theater artists work their fingers (and other body parts) to the bone in order to provide us with extensive, exceptional year-round entertainment.

Last year may not have been the best San Diego theater ever offered; productions were canceled (“Sunset Boulevard,” for example) or over-promoted (see Most Hyped, below).   Cherished people (like actor Linda Castro) left town, but comebacks were made (Starlight Musical Theatre, just in time for its 50th anniversary), and the worthy homeless found shelter (Sushi moved into a lusciously flexible new space).

There was plenty to see in 1997.   I personally attended 120 productions, and it wasn’t easy to cull from those the best of the best, but here’s my personal Pat on the back to deserving artists……

Outstanding Performance in Drag:   Duane Daniels (“Weldon Rising,” Diversionary Theatre); Wilson Cruz (“Rent,” La Jolla Playhouse); M Susan Peck (“Girl Bar,” Diversionary Theatre)

Surprise Outstanding Performance by a High-Profile Person: Neil Patrick Harris (“Rent,” La Jolla Playhouse); Faye Dunaway (“Master Class,” San Diego Playgoers)

Most Talked- and Written-About (and Hyped!) Events: “Rent” and “Harmony,” La Jolla Playhouse; “The Conquistador,” San Diego Opera; “Beauty & the Beast,” San Diego Playgoers

Outstanding Out-of-Town or Bused-in Productions (among my very favorites of the year): “Ragtime,” Shubert Theatre; Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake,” Ahmanson Theatre; “Master Class,” San Diego Playgoers; “Show Boat,” Orange County Performing Arts Center; “Freedomland,” South Coast Rep

Outstanding Ensemble:   “Harmony,” La Jolla Playhouse (the men, anyway); “Pill Hill,” Máscara Mágica; “Having Our Say,” La Jolla Playhouse; “You Can’t Take It With You,” Lamb’s Players Theatre

Outstanding Direction:   Sean Murray (“Love! Valor! Compassion!” Diversionary Theatre); Bill Virchis (“The Who’s Tommy,” Southwestern College); Bryan Bevell (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Fritz Theatre; “Free Will & Wanton Lust,” Sledgehammer); Christina Courtenay, (“Weldon Rising,” Diversionary); Todd Salovey (“Uncle Vanya,” San Diego Rep)

Outstanding Scenic Design:   James Joy (“Mask of Moriarty,” Old Globe); Giulio Cesare Perrone (“Uncle Vanya,” San Diego Rep); Marty Burnett (body of work, North Coast Repertory Theatre); David Ledsinger (“Demonology,” Sledgehammer); Annie Smart (“The Importance of Being Earnest,” La Jolla Playhouse); Mike Buckley (“A Woman of No Importance,” Lamb’s Players Theatre)

Outstanding Costume Design: Jeanne Reith (“A Woman of No Importance,” Lamb’s Players Theatre); Ambra King Wakefield (“The Secret Garden,” Moonlight Amphitheatre); Dione Lebhar (“Zoot Suit,” San Diego Rep); Bryan Schmidtberger (“Singin’ in the Rain,” Starlight Musical Theatre)

Outstanding Lighting Design: Jeff Rowlings (“Uncle Vanya,” San Diego Rep); Jeff Davis (“The Mask of Moriarty,” Old Globe); Mike Buckley (“A Woman of No Importance,” Lamb’s); Richard Anthony Fellner (“Demonology,” “Angel City,” Sledgehammer); Chris Rynne (“Love! Valour! Compassion!” Diversionary)

Outstanding Production:   “Pride’s Crossing,” Old Globe; “Uncle Vanya,” San Diego Rep; “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” Diversionary; “Demonology,” Sledgehammer; “Rent,” La Jolla Playhouse

Outstanding Sound Design: Joseph Julian Gonzalez (“Uncle Vanya,” San Diego Rep); Jeff Ladman (“Pride’s Crossing,” “Mask of Moriarty,” “The Legacy,” Old Globe); Michael Roth (“The School for Wives,” La Jolla Playhouse)

Outstanding Performance:   D. Candis Paule (“The Heiress,” North Coast Repertory Theatre); Julie Jacobs (“Demonology,” “Angel City,” Sledgehammer); Cherry Jones (“Pride’s Crossing,” Old Globe); Lamont Thompson (“Pill Hill,” Máscara Mágica; “The America Play,” Fritz); Kim Murphy (“Miracles,” Old Globe); Lois Markle (“Three Tall Women,” San Diego Repertory Theatre)

Faces to Watch:

Actors: Nick Spear; Adam Edwards; Robert Borzych; Keith Wright; Frank DiPalermo; Laura Arnold; Bix Bettwy; Candice Nicole Safstrom; Ryan Lowe; Jeffrey Jones

Directors: Tom Vegh; Kris Salata; Kirsten Brandt; Steve Gallion; Tim West (as writer and actor, too)

Playwrights: Suzan-Lori Parks; Amy Freed; Samuel Valdez L

As usual, it was a dramatic roller-coaster ride. Maybe a few too many safe choices; everyone was a little jittery. But the NEA wasn’t obliterated, the theatre has survived another season, and will yet again, rise like a phoenix from its own ashes.

©1998 Patté Productions Inc.