Playwrights, directors, and actors spend countless hours researching, writing, rewriting, memorizing, staging, and emotionally preparing for work that strives for perfection. With so many variables in play, perfection is seldom realized, as most theater professionals will admit. But when it is, audiences are left breathless and shaken, reaching for handkerchiefs and superlatives to describe an experience that words can't do justice. That was the case with Mothers and Sons, the crown jewel of GableStage's season. Set around a surprise visit from a gay widow's mother-in-law, who still hasn't accepted her son's passing from AIDS, Terrence McNally's play exhibited a profound understanding of gay-straight relations in the 21st Century, riding rapidly shifting tides with an empathetic eye for those left behind. Angie Radosh's performance humanized intolerance with the truth and complexity of a master craftsman; Michael McKeever channeled the soul of the modern gay man with both patience and quivering, righteous indignation; and Jeremiah Musgrove flawlessly embodied McKeever's younger boyfriend, representing a healthy generation removed from Stonewall. Director Joseph Adler put all the pieces together for an unforgettable, mind-opening work of art.

As a creative mantra, "write what you know" doesn't always work: It can result in myopic self-absorption as much as personalized insight. But Third Trinity, the new solo show from Miami wunderkind Teo Castellanos, cemented the value of autobiographical writing in its spartan production at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse. His frequent partner in the theater of the avant-garde, Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed Castellanos, though it felt like he was directing a bustling ensemble: Castellanos played 23 characters, ranging from himself and his two brothers to petty drug dealers, priests, junkies, and his own grandmother, in a therapeutic and adventurous journey spanning three decades. Local audiences connected with the show's excursions into Cocaine Cowboys territory — the script, with its Goodfellas-like Mob menace, was originally penned as a screenplay — not to mention the vintage Dade County images projected onstage and the cauldron of South Floridian dialects Castellanos combined. The show could easily play elsewhere in the country, but it will always be ours.

This year really did bring a new theater to the New Theatre, as the longtime Miami company completed its first full season in the breathtaking South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. The modern, multivenue structure, with its topnotch lighting and sound grid, has been a veritable godsend for a company that had been gypsying around lesser, temporary venues for years. Moreover, for the first time in many seasons, artistic director Ricky J. Martinez selected a group of plays that was powerful and cohesive, which included familiar classics and world premieres that nonetheless seemed to converse with one another. A theme of intolerance connected powerful works such as The Cuban Spring, Vanessa Garcia's exploration of the generational divide of Cubans and Cuban-Americans; The Gospel According to Jerry, a two-hander about the unlikely relationship between a rabbi and a gospel singer; Twelve Angry Men, a production that still found new avenues to explore in this vintage drama; and Women Playing Hamlet, which took a comic look at gender bias through the prism of classical acting. There wasn't a clunker among them, with Martinez's directorial work never seeming so consistently accomplished.

Readers' choice: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

David Arisco was the driving force behind Murder Ballad, a killer off-Broadway musical at Actors' Playhouse, and that alone is enough to earn him this award. He doubled as the show's immaculate choreographer, placing people in carnal couplings and tragic duels atop bars and pool tables and even among the audience itself. His vision captured both the excitement and melancholy of the source material, and it set a new benchmark for immersive South Florida theater. His successful track record as a virtuoso director of musicals carried over to other Actors' Playhouse shows this season as well: His outsize vision brought the Zeitgeist-capturing period musical Ragtime to vivid life, juggling a cast of more than 40 professional actors in the company's largest undertaking ever. Nothing was lost in translation except for a portion of the song lyrics — victims of a sound grid in disrepair. Arisco promptly fixed this issue with a digital soundboard for his next effort, First Date, a mediocre if relatable musical about the awkward pairing of two young singles. His immaculate direction emphasized the humor and humanity of the words and lyrics, polishing an average stone into something like a diamond.

Andy Quiroga is one of our dependably elastic character actors, excelling in invariably smallish parts such as the homoerotic hustler in Mangrove Creative Collective's Paradise Motel and the volcanic father in Alliance Theatre Lab's Off Center of Nowhere. But this year's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune provided him with the meatiest role he's enjoyed in years, a riveting reminder he has the magnetism to carry a show. In the rebranded Alliance Theatre's comeback show, written by Terrence McNally, he played Johnny, the male part of a one-night stand that might become something more, if only the lonely waitress would just acquiesce to his plans for their future. Quiroga displayed a rare and, for this role, necessary ability to act creepy and sincere at the same time. At various points in the play's two extended acts, he was as clingy as plastic wrap, as chivalrous as a knight, and as emotionally naked as a support-group member. Until the very end, we didn't know exactly what to think of him, which means he was doing his job exactly right.

Henry David Thoreau, the original hipster, famously wrote that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Occasionally, a performance will so accurately convey that axiom that it's almost uncomfortable to witness. Chaz Mena accomplished this feat in Zoetic Stage's Detroit at the Arsht Center. He found the quiet desperation in Ben, an unemployed husband of Anytown suburbia who was perennially building a financial website that never materialized, watching NASCAR programs on max volume in a zombified stupor, and staring a few beats too long at his younger, blonder, always underdressed new neighbor. No matter what the script dictated for Mena, from cooking real meat onstage to nearly breaking his leg on his neighbors' unfinished porch, he never lost that hard-wired sense of existential malaise that we call the midlife crisis. And when he unveiled a game-changing secret in the play's discomfiting, climactic bacchanal, the result was both hilarious and heartbreaking. Detroit may have been an equal-opportunity ensemble piece, but Mena took the reins and stole the show.

Honestly, this one is a dead heat between two unforgettable, back-to-back GableStage standouts: Angie Radosh's intolerant, grieving mother in Mothers and Sons, and Natalia Coego's untethered id of Judaism in Bad Jews. In the interest of variety — Radosh, after all, has become the Meryl Streep of South Florida theater — this award goes to the upstart Coego, a still-unfamiliar face on Miami stages, whose performance as the devout, delusional, and argumentative Daphna Feygenbaum felt transmitted from somewhere else, like a divided synagogue in Williamsburg or a Tel Aviv café on an election eve. Wearing a frazzled nest of hair and peppering her performance with subtly condescending body language, Coego spewed judgmental proclamations and insults that spilled forth with an inextinguishable velocity and impact, disproving the old adage about sticks and stones. Words can indeed hurt, to the point of severing families with the sort of permanence only religion can provide.

GableStage director Joseph Adler has a knack for spotting talent before anybody else and then casting that talent in roles that seem both introductory and definitive. For evidence, look at Betsy Graver (Blasted and Farragut North), Ryan Didato (Red), and this year's Best Actress winner, Natalia Coego (Bad Jews). Arielle Hoffman continued this tradition with her stunningly acrid, marvelously lived-in performance as Ellie, the 17-year-old estranged daughter of a morbidly obese English professor in The Whale. Hoffman more than held her own with Gregg Weiner, one of the heavyweights — literally, in this case — of South Florida theater, playing off his character's 11th-hour bonding overtures with a kind of pitiless contempt that must have been challenging to summon. She embodied the modern jaded teenager with brutal authenticity, right down to her gestures, gait, and posture. And when Weiner finally pierced her armor of long-simmering anger and condescension, it was understated and beautiful, one of the most moving theatrical moments of the past year.

Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre
Photo by Diego Pocovi

There are plenty of reasons Actors' Playhouse's Murder Ballad was the best musical of the year, including a stunningly reimagined set design, outstanding musical direction, and superb lighting. But without a cast that could perfectly translate the show's whirlwind of lust, death, longing, and mordant humor, it would have been all for naught. And this quartet of actors was so exceptional that they should take this production on tour. Chris Crawford brought seething rage and sexual inhibition to his Manhattan bartender, Blythe Gruda convincingly portrayed a young woman torn between domestic security and forbidden pleasure, and Mark Sanders made plausible the tragedy of his spurned lover and the dawning acceptance that violence is his only recourse. Mariand Torres kept these wild egos and libidos in check as the narrator, a goth-chic barkeep whose dark sense of mirth cut everybody down to size. Collectively, they were like the four panes of a window into the complicated human heart — broken though it may be.

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
Justin Namon

The script of Peter and the Starcatcher — the high-seas coming-of-age prequel to Peter Pan — left much to be desired. But the Arsht Center's production was as inventive as the story was overplotted, conceiving an imaginative land of danger and wonder. Its witty lighting and transportive sound design had a lot to do with the play's atmospheric vision, but at the center of it all stood the mammoth set by Yoshinori Tanokura, which actor Nicholas Richberg compared to "a big jungle gym playground." With its twin balconies and elevated breezeway, its many ropes and stepladders and nautical props, Tanokura's vision for the deck of a rickety cargo ship was infused with an architect's visionary quirks as well as a mariner's splendor. More important, it was as functional as it was ruggedly attractive, because it required the actors to scamper around it at all times. The Arsht was the first regional theater in the nation to produce Peter and the Starcatcher, and future companies would be wise to follow Tanokura's example.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®