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Looking back on a year's worth of theater memories

The past 12 months have been filled with surprises, revelations and plenty of great theater.

TODAY'S Theaterdelphia marks the end of the column's first year of existence. And what a year it's been!

According to the sacred Entertainment Writer's Oath, I am bound to wrap up the year gone by with a "10 Best"-type list. Well, that would be fine if I had been able to see every play staged in this region in the past 51 weeks. Even if I didn't have other responsibilities here at the People Paper, that would be a Herculean task (this building's other journalistic tenant has four regular reviewers, and even they don't get to everything). But that doesn't mean that my first year on the theater beat didn't leave me with indelible memories.

Among the shows I did get to see, there were a surprising amount that were truly outstanding. Two - "The Amish Project," staged at Studio 5, at the Walnut Street Theatre, and co-produced by Philly's Simpatico Theatre Project and the Renegade Company; and InterAct Theatre's production of "Assassin" - were hardly light entertainment, but were nonetheless powerful and disturbing.

"Amish Project" was a one-woman show in which star Janice Rowland brilliantly portrayed a dazzling array of characters while telling the soul-shattering tale of the 2006 murder of five young girls at a Lancaster County schoolhouse. "Assassin" was a two-character work dealing with the fictionalized aftermath of a 1978 NFL preseason game in which New England Patriot receiver Darryl Stingley was paralyzed after a vicious (but legal) hit by Oakland Raider defensive back Jack Tatum.

Both ripped-from-the-headline pieces asked serious and provocative questions about forgiveness and compassion that challenged well after the curtains dropped.

Two other (fictional) dramas have really stayed with me. The Arden Theatre's revival of "A Raisin in the Sun," which focused on a mid-20th-century black family's triumphs and tragedies, boasted some of the most naturalistic ensemble acting I've ever seen. And Theatre Exile's presentation of Bruce Graham's "North of the Boulevard" was a brooding, often sour-tasting rumination on moral equivalency infused with plenty of the dark humor that is the Bard of Delco's calling card.

And speaking of humor, "Tales of the Allergist's Wife" at Bucks County Playhouse was a pure delight. Charles Busch's Neil Simon-ish script about an uptight, upper-middle-class matron (Marsha Mason) whose life is topsy-turvied by the arrival of a free-spirited acquaintance (Marilu Henner) was stuffed with strong jokes and sharp observations. But the true payoff was seeing consummate pros Mason and Henner turn in gold-standard performances.

Of course, all the top touring Broadway shows came to town under the auspices of the Kimmel Center's "Broadway Philadelphia" program. Of that batch, "Catch Me if You Can" and "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" were wastes of time. But I thoroughly enjoyed "Sister Act" (with Philly gal Ta'Rea Campbell in the lead), "The Addams Family" and, most of all, "Once," one of the few contemporary musicals to boast songs that are more than simply sung dialogue or exposition.

And, while hardly the best iteration Philly has seen, the Academy of Music presentation of "Les Miserables" that kicked off 2013 came at a perfect time. After dealing with the less-than-stellar vocal work of many of the stars of the late-2012 film version, it was nice to hear people with real voices sing those magnificent songs.

There was also plenty of offstage news this year, starting with the announcement of the planned fall 2014 revival of the Barrymore Awards, Our Town's answer to the Tonys.

And buildings themselves were in the news. Perhaps most significantly, this fall saw the debut of FringeArts' impressive new home base at the foot of Race Street. The Kimmel also added to the local venue stock when it turned its long-neglected basement space into the SEI Innovation Studio, which is aiming at a younger audience with a unique melding of performing and fine art.

But for me, the real revelation this year had nothing to do with individual productions, performances or buildings. What thrilled and excited me the most was my discovery of a vibrant, diverse, dedicated and, yes, often courageous local theater community that conjures and nurtures such a dynamic - and growing - scene. The past 12 months have led me to one "Who knew?" moment after another, as this column exposed me to the often-staggering breadth and width of local theater. Which makes the prospects for the new year tantalizing, to say the least.

In the meantime, please accept my warmest wishes for a happy, healthy and peaceful 2014. See you at the theater!

Twitter: @chuckdarrow