The Year in Theater: These 7 Performances Displayed the Miracle of Great Acting

Emma is a seagull. Or maybe she is an actress. She is definitely a problem. In People, Places & Things, Emma has lost her place in the script, and to see her stumble around the stage, fluffing her cues and botching her lines, is to feel a growing horror. Because bad acting is an injury, an insult. Good acting? That’s a miracle. And this year there was plenty of it — by women, by men, by an overgrown Roomba. Here are a few of the most visceral, vicious, lacerating, uproarious, gentle, and metal performances of the year, with Denise Gough, who plays the floundering Emma, topping the list.

Denise Gough, People, Places & Things

Emma is an actress crammed with uppers, downers, all-arounders, and a bottle of rioja, too. She’s so blitzed she barely knows where she is. She has probably never known who she is. Every so often, a performance will make you worry about what an actor has had to endure to bring it to you. At St. Ann’s Warehouse this fall, I worried a lot while watching Gough, who navigated the physical, vocal, and emotional extremes that mark Emma’s drama of addiction and recovery with ferocious, unlovely grace. This is acting as slow-motion car crash. Sometimes a fast-motion one, too. Just try to look away.

Laurie Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Lucas Hnath’s brainy sequel picks up fifteen years after Henrik Ibsen’s play ends, with Metcalf’s Nora walking back through the door she famously slammed. In the moments before Nora knocks, a cavalcade of emotions paraded across Metcalf’s face — split seconds of excitement, regret, bafflement, fear, and steely determination. The performance that followed was a quicksilver kick, as meticulous as it was unpredictable. Metcalf is an actress who can turn on objects a lot smaller than a dime. Her portrait of a woman re-entering the life she left was a wonder of volatility and surprise.

In an uneven production at the Public, Oscar Isaac somehow made Hamlet’s speeches sound new.

Oscar Isaac, Hamlet

Words, words, words — Isaac had plenty of them. A former indie-film star who has made the hyperspace leap to blockbusters, Isaac trained as a classical actor, and he returned to that training in Sam Gold’s deconstructed, dirt-heavy staging at the Public Theater. The production — dour and madcap, phony and real — never came together. But Isaac, dressed in a hoodie and sweatpants, took on speeches that have become so familiar it’s almost impossible to actually hear them made spontaneous or brand-new. His “To be or not to be” — searching, grief-struck, conversational — actually sounded like a question. I wanted to know the answer.

Annaleigh Ashford, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

What Helena needs is a couple of stiff drinks and someone to show her how Bumble works. But what she wants is Demetrius, and Demetrius wants her gone. Or dead. Or mauled by beasts. Ashford, one of the great comic actresses working today, is a ray of slightly bonkers sunshine. At Shakespeare in the Park last summer, she embraced Helena’s ugly desperation with gusto and devotion, hurling herself around the stage in grief and lust and self-loathing. (This year, Ashford also played a lovelorn Dot of Sunday in the Park With George, but Dot had to keep it together.) Even when she was a wailing, snotty, mascara-smeared mess — OK, especially when she was a wailing, snotty, mascara-smeared mess — she was also a delight.

Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, The Little Foxes

Two actresses didn’t really need to be doubly cast as Regina Giddens, the venomous matriarch at the center of Lillian Hellman’s play. But why complain? In Daniel Sullivan’s Broadway revival, Regina is a woman who finally frees herself of the checks and expectations of her father and brothers. What does she do with that freedom? Steal and connive and rush her husband to an early death. Linney and Nixon had similar approaches to the role, which they devoured with comparable enjoyment. They have so often played nice that it was a thrill to see them play mean, with obvious, almost erotic pleasure. For any woman who has been told to smile more, Regina’s poisoned grin — on either lipsticked mouth — was an inspiration.

Cristin Milioti finds compassion in the endearing robot of “After the Blast.”

Arthur, After the Blast

Emotions aren’t really Arthur’s thing. Neither are vocal modulations or thoughts or fingers. A hunk of gun-metal gray aluminum, accented with yellow fuzz and large unblinking eyes, this “aw”-inspiring robot perks up Zoe Kazan’s play about Anna (Cristin Milioti), a woman succumbing to depression in an underground bunker some decades after a nuclear disaster. Offstage, one man controls Arthur’s movements, another supplies his voice, so Arthur doesn’t do anything you could reasonably call acting. But in his blank face, Anna finds care and compassion. I did, too. Arthur isn’t human; he isn’t even alive. But as a mirror for our own disaffections and desires, he gives one of the most moving performances of the year.