2009 Pittsburgh's Performer of the Year: Robin Abramson

Named for 'Blackbird' and 'Mary's Wedding'


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For 2009, which despite economic recession was a characteristically busy and engaging year in Pittsburgh theater, the Post-Gazette Performer of the Year is Robin Abramson.

She starred in just two plays -- some of the PG's previous 25 Performers of the Year have logged as many as a half-dozen in their year -- but in those two, both at City Theatre, she displayed extraordinary emotional range.

In Stephen Massicotte's comi-tragic "Mary's Wedding" last spring, Abramson played a young Canadian bride of about 20 who, glowingly transparent with both goofy love and frantic fear, watches her new husband (a touching Braden Moran) go off to World War I. Telling her own story, she also plays all the others in her retrospective imaginative version of his fate.

Then this fall, in David Harrower's harrowing "Blackbird," she played Una, 27, who comes back after 15 unhappy years to confront the middle-age man (the very fine Steve Pickering) who had raped her when she was 12, but with what she claims was her willing participation. Una is composed of both need and fury, as tormented and opaque as Mary is loving and luminous. Together, they made for an astonishing dual demonstration of truthful, heart-stirring acting.

Abramson is one of the youngest to be named PG Performer of the Year. Just 28, she grew up in Monroeville and acted at Gateway High School before going to Point Park University, where she played in "Three Sisters" and "Floyd Collins." Since graduating into the professional ranks in 2003, she has done "The Sisters Rosensweig" and "Fiddler on the Roof" at the Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh and "Othello" for Unseam'd Shakespeare. She played part of a strange sexual triangle in "Outlying Island" at City and the title roll of Tammy Ryan's "FBI Girl" for Playhouse Rep.

That's not a lot for six years, but Abramson spent much of that time in Israel, attracted by a mixture of ideology, adventure and love. She also did some English language acting there, from Neil LaBute to Rodgers and Hammerstein. But now she says she has "planted her roots here -- [at least] for the next few years. I got tired living out of a duffel bag." Pittsburgh theaters, take note.

Fierce competition

As in its first 25 years, the Performer of the Year is restricted to local productions, excluding tours. And it excludes repeats.

If that weren't the case, Abramson would have had stiff competition from many of the 12 previous winners who acted here in 2009, including such busy favorites as Helena Ruoti, Martin Giles, David Whalen, Larry John Meyers and John Shepard, who all seemed to show up everywhere, and the ever-remarkable Bingo O'Malley and Tom Atkins. This consistency in our professional acting pool mirrors the loyalty and stability Pittsburgh admires, although it may also suggest some of the stasis we deplore.

Even excluding previous winners, the choice of Abramson wasn't easy. Providing her stiffest competition was the actor of the year, Robert Cuccioli. This charismatic veteran's range extended from the comic, self-deprecating Angelo in the world premiere of Thom Thomas' "A Moon to Dance By" at Playhouse Rep, to the sonorous, obsessive Inspector Javert in Pittsburgh CLO's "Les Miserables."

Another strong contender was Sam Redford, who played a befuddled Nicky in "The Seafarer" at City along with two fine leads for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre: the bottled-up Irwin in "The History Boys" and the questing Jan in "Rock 'n' Roll."

Following are some other outstanding performances from the 75 or so shows reviewed by the Post-Gazette in 2009, primarily by me, Bob Hoover and Sharon Eberson.

Best ensemble: Sometimes the acting is so consistently strong you can't pick favorites. Setting the minimum cast size to qualify as an ensemble at three, the year's best was the trio of Jane Alexander, Gareth Saxe and Cuccioli in "A Moon to Dance By," which, not coincidentally, topped the PG's list of the 10 best productions of 2009, published Dec. 17. Other ensembles of note included "The Seafarer," "Crime and Punishment" (PICT), "Glengarry Glen Ross" (barebones), "Mojo" (Playhouse Rep) and "The Little Foxes" and "The World Goes Round" (both Public Theater).

Best actor: In addition to Cuccioli and Redford, plus the veterans Whalen, Meyers, Atkins and O'Malley, 2009 standouts included Pickering ("Blackbird"), Doug Mertz ("Angels in America," Pitt), Victor Slezak ("A Moon for the Misbegotten," Public), Sam Tsoutsouvas ("Rock 'n' Roll"), Joel Ripka ("Crime and Punishment"), Doug Rees ("What the Butler Saw," PICT), Kelly Boulware ("Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," City), Herb Newsome ("FreeMan in Paris," New Horizon), John Wascavage ("Candide," Quantum), Chris Cattell ("Disinfecting Edwin," Open Stage), Fred Inkley ("Les Miserables"), Hunter Foster ("Into the Woods," CLO), Jody O'Donnell ("Breaking Up," No Name Productions) and Monte Russell ("Seven Guitars," Pittsburgh Playwrights).

Best actress: In addition to Abramson, Ruoti (splendid in "Rock 'n' Roll" and "The Little Foxes") and Alexander, the best in 2009 included Tina Fabrique ("Ella," Public), Tasha Lawrence ("Human Error," City), Jen Cody and Brynn O'Malley ("Into the Woods"), Melinda Helfrich ("Yerma," Quantum), Tami Dixon ("Neighborhood 3," Bricolage), Amy Landis ("Queens," Playhouse Rep), Rita Gregory ("No Child ...," Open Stage), Daina Michelle Griffith ("Speak American," City) and Nicole Kaplan ("Candide").

Supporting actress: The best was Deirdre Madigan's Birdie ("Little Foxes"). Also strong were Elena Alexandratos (Ethel Rosenberg in "Angels in America"), Brooks Almy ("Harry's Friendly Service," Public), Sally Wilfert ("Copacabana," CLO), Sheila McKenna ("Jekyll and Hyde") and Robyn Parrish ("Mouth to Mouth," Quantum).

Supporting actor: Along with Atkins' crusty father in "Moon for the Misbegotten," Giles, Meyers and Shepard could fill this category with several standout performances each. But in addition, there were Ross Bickell ("Little Foxes"), Sam Turich and Michael Fuller ("Mojo"), Mark Staley ("Speak American"), Dave Droxler ("History Boys"), Tim Hartman ("Les Miserables"), Jarrod DiGiorgi ("That Championship Season," Playhouse Rep), all the secondary Mr. Hydes (City) and three drama faculty actors playing elderly, randy boobies ("The London Cuckolds," CMU).

Special mentions: I wish Pittsburgh Opera Theater's "Beggar's Holiday" (a musical by any other name) had appeared before my Top 10 list, Dec. 17. What category should we invent for Bricolage's entertaining "Midnight Radio" series? And if there were a section of Best Directors this year, it would be led by City's Tracy Brigden ("Seafarer," "Human Error" and "Jekyll and Hyde").


Post-Gazette senior theater critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com . First Published January 6, 2010 5:00 AM


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