Actor of the Year

Posted on 24 Dec 2015 at 2:01pm

Sally Nystuen Vahle

As I write every year: This is my favorite piece to do each December, a remembrance of all the talented individuals who work so diligently in the footlights to entertain us in live performances throughout the year. Because live theater is temporary, these folks leave their art to our memories, and the least we can do is say “thank you — we remember.”

We remember, for instance, a host of “pairs” from this year, such as David Lugo and Anthony Fortino, playing a father and his devoted son in Catch Me If You Can, a mediocre musical transformed by director Cheryl Denson — and its stars — into the whiz-bang showstopper of the summer. The duet of Angel Velasco as a self-absorbed gayboy and Mikey Abrams as a lustful Thurston Howell III in the campy spoof Gilligan’s Fire Island had us howell-ing in the aisle.

Brigham Moseley and Van Quattro appeared in separate one-man shows at the second annual Dallas Solo Fest (both self-written: Moseley’s Mo[u]rning After and Quattro’s Standing Eight Count), giving us hope for the success of this re-emerging genre. The wonderful presence of Grace Neeley is all that kept Kyle Igneczi’s star turn in Hedwig and the Angry Inch from being a solo show, but they worked magic together.

The women teamed up successfully, too. Cara Statham-Serber’s hilarious take on a less-than-great mom, and Kennedy Waterman’s mature, rooted role as her common-sensical daughter, were the highlights of Harbor. Sherry Ward dominated the stage in a compelling role as a prickly lesbian college professor in Echo Theatre’s Precious Little, though Lisa Fairchild gave her a run for her money in the same show. Tina Parker and Leah Spillman made for a funny twosome, allowing craven powermongering to get the better of them, in the political comedy The Totalitarians, one of Kitchen Dog’s best shows. (Max Hartman and Drew Wall, as the men trying to stop them, were just as good.)

Tiana Johnson’s charisma in The Mountaintop stole focus away from the main character (Martin Luther King, guys!) and kept our eyes lasered in on her from start to finish. Amber Devlin committed similar larceny in Theatre 3’s production of Picnic. In a play that oozes sexual desire, her randy schoolmarm was the comic and tragic center of the piece. And Christopher J. Deaton’s tender yet sultry performance in Grand Hotel enchanted audience members.

But four other actors really stood out for me in 2015. Sterling Gafford burst on the scene in two memorable roles — as the Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, and as the object of affection for the incomparable B.J. Cleveland in Uptown Players’ The Nance. Indeed, in any other year, these two would be neck-and-neck for my highest accolades (Cleveland, a previous winner, was brilliant, as always). Then there was that work by Janelle Lutz in Lyric Stage’s buoyant production of South Pacific. Lutz impressed audiences last year as Judy Garland in The Boy from Oz (and she’ll play Garland again in a different show in 2016), though her Nellie Forbush — corny, ebullient, unexpectedly racist — almost single-handedly propelled a great show.

But one performance from early 2015 lingers in my memory. I saw Zoe Caldwell portray Medea onstage in Robinson Jeffers’ classic adaptation of the great tragedy, but Sally Nystuen Vahle, pictured, more than equaled her. True, it’s one of the great roles for any actress, but how many can sear it into your memory so viscerally nine months later? Vahle already has a well-earned rep as one of North Texas’ premier talents, but that performance made her Dallas Voice’s 2015 Actor of the Year.

— A.W.J.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 25, 2015.

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