Top 5 Chicago actors in 2010

December 13, 2010

All this month, the theater writers from our "Onstage/Backstage" blog are compiling their favorites in 2010 Chicago theater. Today, Kelly Kleiman lists her top 5 actors of the year. 

Sean Fortunato in Travels With My Aunt at Writers Theatre. Yes, yes, I’ve just seen this performance so it’s apt to come to mind; but believe me, I’ve been a fan of Fortunato’s at least since 2003, when in Northlight’s production of the musical At Wit’s End he played the founding editor of The New Yorker.  (The New Yorker should have been so lucky.)  In Graham Greene’s  bizarre fusion of Auntie Mame and Under the Volcano, he manages to portray persuasively both a repressed middle-aged English banker and the banker’s madcap Aunt Augusta, complete with understated homage to the original Aunt Augusta, the one created by Oscar Wilde.  Comic actors rarely get their due, so I’ve put him first.  His comic chops are incomparable.  Long may he wave.

Mary Beth Fisher in The Year of Magical Thinking at Court Theatre and in The Seagull at the Goodman.  Fisher has made a career of playing women torn between their very considerable brains and their less well-governed hearts, a pattern set by her perfect-pitch performance as the overstrung college administrator in Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter at the Goodman in 2001.  She’s sometimes poorly served by her roles–Sarah Ruhl’s cutesy-poo magic realism doesn’t bring out Fisher’s best–but this year she got not one but two roles of a lifetime.  She was perfectly cast and utterly in command as Joan Didion, the famously intellectual writer who confronts two different heartbreaks–the death of her husband and the illness of her daughter–in a single ghastly year.  And Fisher’s work as the self-absorbed actress Arkadina in The Seagull was, counter-intuitively, exceptionally generous: she exerted her substantial reserves of control to resist the impulse to take over the stage, letting the play belong to its author, its concept and its questing and agonized youth. 

Caroline Neff in Harper Regan and in A Brief History of Helen of Troy, both at Steep Theatre.  After giving fine support in Harper Regan early in the year, Neff got to show her true range and capacity in the role of a young girl who’s either just desperate for attention or having a psychotic break.  She stayed on that tightrope of ambiguity even as she was compelled to race from one end to the other, using her manic energy to move the lumpen people around her: uncomprehending teachers, passive lovers, a virtually silent father.  An astonishing display of recklessness leavened with mourning and true grit, her work held the audience riveted.

Francis Guinan in Guide to the Perplexed at Victory Gardens and The Seagull at the Goodman (and, cheating back into late 2009, in American Buffalo at Steppenwolf, his home company).  Guinan came into his own with August Osage County three years ago (at Steppenwolf, then on Broadway, then in London), but this has been the year he’s finally stepped into the spotlight.  His forte is portraying fundamental middle-aged decency shot through with all the ambiguities middle age presents, and in this he’s a worthy heir to John Mahoney.  First he embodied Donny, the unwilling and unwitting paterfamilias in American Buffalo; this year it was the broken husband in Guide to the Perplexed and the resigned Judge in Seagull.  The characters are past their primes, but the actor is anything but.

More cheating: the 5th top actor is actually the entire ensemble of Home at Court Theatre.. Seeing Kamal Angelo Bolden’s deeply felt work as the farmer in search of redemption made me regret even more having missed his turn as the title character in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity last year at Victory Gardens.  He’s a star on the rise–creating his role in Home, for instance, for the Signature Ensemble in New York–so we may not have a chance to see a lot more of him on Chicago stages; but as Home demonstrates, one can always hope!  Let’s be clear, though: without Tracey N. Bonner and Ashley Honore, who between them play all the other characters he meets, Bolden would be shouting down an empty corridor.  The women’s ability to turn on a dime from comic bawdy to innocent, from traitorous to tender to tragic, is amazing beyond description.  Of course, when everyone in a play is great, that means the direction is great, which is why Ron OJ Parson gets a star of his own on the Kleiman Walk of Fame.

(Photo of Sean Fortunado (center) from Travels With My Aunt at Writers Theatre)