2003 was the year of the turnaround for regional theater. And I’ve got the odometer to prove it.

At least 265 productions gave the area, on average, five new openings each week. Our Fall was the busiest one we’d ever seen: People were going out, seeing shows again.

And a lot was worth seeing. For a critic, one measure of a regional theater’s health involves the number of productions up for serious consideration at awards time. If the same two or three shows round up everything in sight, excellence is still clearly limited, self-contained.

This year, after giving every show the once over, I began deliberations with 94 separate nominations, from 49 productions. Here are the conclusions.

We begin with two important additions to the usual lists.

Special Achievements in the Humanities
Our first awards ever in this category recognize five productions whose humanitarian impact clearly reached well beyond their individual venues.

Walltown Children’s Theater broke the seemingly impenetrable ethnic and language barrier in regional theater with its April production of Romeo y Julieta. Now that the children have led, will the adults follow? The Rotimi Foundation’s intriguing production of Holding Talks in August began bringing the work of Ola Rotimi, a notable Nigerian playwright, out of the eclipse following his death.

Capacity crowds greeted the N.C. Women’s Prison Writing and Performance Project in Doing More than Time, a project to help women inmates give their experiences voice, and construct a bridge from prison cells back to society. Particularly now, Bread and Puppet Theater’s fall appearances provided a useful primer in the theater of political resistance. Similarly, in The Lysistrata Project, organizers Lissa Brennan, Jay O’Berski, Kurt Benrud and Nan Stephenson advanced artistic anti-war protest when their staged readings of the Greek comedy were among over 1,000 productions held the same March night in 59 countries across the world.

Special Assistance to the Theater
Though inexperienced regional playwrights have difficulty getting worthy works seen by public audiences, two groups gave them particular assistance this year. Lynden Harris and the N.C. Playwrights Alliance’s September Slam It! Play Slam brought a robust house of theater professionals and others out for a raucous first ride with 14 area playwrights. Later, Scott Pardue’s eminent departure stirred concern that New World Stage’s Playfactory–where playwrights, company and audience all collaborate on a work in process, like September’s Settling Sophia–was in danger of closing up shop. Will it? We’ll see next year.

Best Musical Directors
Brett Wilson: Tintypes, Peace College
Rus Hames: Handler, Raleigh Ensemble Players
Benjamin Keaton: Jackie O, Long Leaf Opera
Diane Petteway: A Christmas Carol, Theatre in the Park

Honorable Mentions:
Jill Baldwin, Kevin Brock, Claudia Lopez and Mahlon Hoard: The Dream and The Lie, Paper Hand Puppet Intervention

The “high lonesome” sound of Rus Hames’ bluegrass band with three of the Cadillac Backsteps made a pitch-perfect accompaniment to Handler’s Appalachian snake-handling religious cult, while Brett Wilson ably navigated five on-stage singers and a six-piece orchestra through Tintypes’ daunting musical cavalcade. Though we deplored the nauseating narcissism of Jackie O’s libretto, Benjamin Keaton’s musical direction still established a new level of musicianship for Long Leaf. And after 29 years, Diane Petteway’s quick-change band ought to have sounded as good as it did during this year’s Christmas Carol.

Best Designs
Miyuki Su: Lilies, Raleigh Ensemble Players
Robin Vest: The Rainmaker, Triad Stage
Michael Levine, Victoria Wallace: Uncle Vanya, Playmakers Rep
Robert Andrusko: Of Mice and Men, Temple Theatre
Thomas Mauney:
The Jungle Book, Applause! Cary Youth Theater, and Tintypes

Honorable Mentions:
Narelle Sissons, Mary Louise Geiger: Dinner with Friends, Playmakers Rep
Sonja Drum, Paul Marsland: Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, Peace College
Bill Rodgers: Wonder of the World, Actors Comedy Lab, and
And Then They Came for Me, Meredith College

Each of these award-winners placed us in a different world. Miyuki Su’s tactile, aromatic installation of peat, candles, limbs and wire took us to a place of memory, passion–and vengeance–while Robin Vest’s Rainmaker set was a bright prairie haiku of magic realism, drought and sublimated desire. Levine and Wallace’s Uncle Vanya set wittily represented Chekhov’s Russian entropy, while rough-hewn wood unfolded to make Robert Andrusko’s Mice and Men set a migrant workers’ shack. Thomas Mauney found a jungle in a library–and vice versa–before making a patriotic and satirical attic for the yesteryear of Tintypes.

Best Stage Adaptations
Adrian Hall: All the King’s Men I & II, Burning Coal Theater
Eric Rosen: Dream Boy, Streetsigns Center
Lissa Brennan: Loose Lips Sink Ships, Gothic, Filth, Dog and Pony Show

Some of the year’s most interesting theatrical work started in a novel, short story or a foreign tongue. Adrian Hall adapted Warren’s convoluted, psychologized, flashback-riddled novel. UNC alum Eric Rosen preserved the music of Jim Grimsley’s Southern prose in Dream Boy. And Lissa Brennan’s silver screen update of Aristophanes and other adaptations lent wit to Loose Lips, her Halloween tribute, Gothic and the banned books of Filth.

Best Supporting Performances
Duane Cyrus: Salome, Playmakers Rep
Elisabeth Corley: As You Like It, StreetSigns Center
Mitch W. Butts, Sarah Fallon: All the King’s Men I & II
Hope Hynes: Loose Lips Sink Ships & Two Sams, Shakespeare & Originals; Crumbs from the Table of Joy, Burning Coal Theater

Honorable Mentions:
Jordan Smith, Torrey Lawrence: Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Streetsigns Center
Chris Chiron: Dream Boy & As You Like It
Rida Askar Perez-Salazar: Romeo y Julieta

I still see Duane Cyrus in my dreams, as the eerily choreographed, scarified African angel of death in Salome. Under Derek Goldman’s direction, Elisabeth Corley memorably found in Jacques a melancholic and ironic Everywoman for our time, reflecting a complex, robust, alienated–and contemporary–feminism.

Also alienated were the icy Annabelle Trice and political fixer Sadie Burke, who Sarah Fallon channeled from different centuries in All the King’s Men. In the same show, Mitch W. Butts amazed us with the rock-solid gravitas and Southern gentility of Judge Montague Irwin.

We saw plenty of range from Hope Hynes this year, from the amusing armed hostilities of Roxie in Loose Lips to the brittle German bride in Crumbs from the Table of Joy, to the devoted and disenchanted brewer’s wife in the otherwise lackluster Two Sams.

Best Lead Performances
Blaine Barbee, Vince Eisenson: The Shape of Things, Manbites Dog Theater
Alex Bonner, Vince Eisenson: Dream Boy
Stephen Roten, Dan Kenney: All the King’s Men I & II
John Murphy, Nicole Taylor: Sea Marks, Wordshed / Ghost & Spice
Elizabeth Ritson: The Rainmaker, Triad Stage
Akil: Shakespeare’s R&J, StreetSigns Center

Honorable Mentions:
Whitney Griffin Borieko: Children of a Lesser God, Raleigh Little Theater
Jordan Smith: Krapp’s Last Tape, Wordshed Productions
Nicole Quenelle: “Northanger Abbey,” Gothic

Performances don’t get a lot more real than Alex Bonner’s Nathan in Dream Boy–a bright, abused outsider at a small Southern school, who’s attracted to Vince Eisenson’s Roy. Two boys on the verge of love, loss, discovery–and damage–had the audience repeatedly holding their breath. Eisenson figured into a different equation with a stunning Blaine Barbee as the question-mark couple at the disturbing center of The Shape of Things.

Stephen Roten made Jack Burden a likable cynic, while Dan Kenney went from an idealistic gubernatorial patsy to Mephistophelean manipulator of the state’s political machine in All the King’s Men. And regional audiences saw John Murphy and Nicole Farmer Taylor at the top of their games as the rough-hewn fisherman poet and a Liverpudlian publisher’s assistant in the sharp, lonely, charming Sea Marks.

While we praised Shakespeare’s R&J’s ensemble, Akil particularly impressed as the quartet’s agent provocateur and the soulful Romeo of their hidden production. And Elisabeth Ritson’s wilted Lizzie in The Rainmaker gave a woman struggling to believe in love during an emotional and meteorological drought.

Best Ensembles
All The King’s Men:
Bob Barr, Mitch W. Butts, Lynda Clark, Wade Ferguson Dansby III, Sarah Fallon, Carly Granger, Lynne Marie Guilielmi, David Byron Hudson, Dan Kenney, David Klionsky, Stephen Letrent, Carl Martin, Greg Paul, Angela Ray, Brandon Roberts, Stephen Roten, Jeri Lynn Schulke, Kathryn Jenkins Smith

Dinner with Friends:
Tandy Cronyn, Kenneth Strong, Ray Dooley, Jessica Peterson

Dream Boy:
Alex Bonner, Blake Bradford, Chris Chiron, Annissa Clarke, Elisabeth Corley, Wade Ferguson Dansby 3, Vince Eisenson, Nicole Quenelle

Joseph Brack, David Dossey, John Honeycutt, Kristine Killmer, Christine Rogers, Zach Thomas, Canady Vance-Tanguis, Brett Wilson, Thaddeus Edwards, Kirsten Ehlert, Sam Fuchs, Rowena Johnson, Rhea Lidowski, Kelly Lowery, Soumya Natarajan

The Price:
Bob Bell, Marcia Edmundson, Tom Marriott

Kenny Gannon, David Bartlet, Yolanda Batts, Christian Sineath, Meghan Beeler

Shakespeare’s R&J:
Akil, Ronnie Cruz, Christopher Salazar, Francis Sarnie IV

How many people realize that this award–and not best direction, lead performance or production–is actually the hardest for a show to achieve?

“Best Ensembles” speaks to a uniformly high level of excellence in acting, not in just a role or two, but across the entire stage in a production. There’s even more to it than that: “ensemble” also indicates a group of artists who have somehow become a single thing–not just a community, but the whole world of the performance itself. It’s rare, because it’s difficult. Which is why we celebrate–loudly–when it happens.

Best Directors
Adrian Hall: All the King’s Men
Joseph Megel: Dream Boy, Shakespeare’s R&J
David Hammond: A Prayer for Owen Meany
C. Glen Matthews: Handler
Drew Barr: Dinner with Friends
Paul Frellick: The Price
Jordan Smith: Sea Marks

Best Productions
9. The Dream and the Lie, Paper Hand Puppet Intervention
Handmade magic at the Forest Theater, in the crafting of fabric, wood, paint and paper mache into metaphors for modern life that were as lyrical in places as they were politically pointed in others. A major step forward in design, craft and dramatic narrative for one of the region’s most thought-provoking groups.

8. Sea Marks, Ghost & Spice/Wordshed Productions
The difficulty with which we negotiate the irreducible distance between all things–sea and harbor, island and mainland, safety and danger, two human hearts–got a dead reckoning in the story of the developing relationship between a hermit fisherman and a publisher’s assistant who falls in love with his writing. A work as austere–and as lonesome, in places–as Benjamin Britten’s music for the sea.

7. The Shape of Things, Manbites Dog Theater
When art grad student Evelyn makes Adam her little project, playwright Neil LaBute graphically reminds us that artistic transformation isn’t always accompanied by redemption, and not all creation is done out of love. Still, this February production left us wondering if LaBute was criticizing protest art in toto–or just the feminist varieties of it.

6. The Price, Deep Dish Theater Company
In the humble apartment where they grew up, two aging brothers–and the woman married to one of them–all desperately try to renegotiate various relationships strained by years of suspicion and silence. In assessing the worth of the room’s abandoned furniture, the group tries to assess the value of their ties to one another. But Arthur Miller reminds us that the moment you can actually put a price on things, or people, they’ve already lost their most intrinsic value.

5. Shakespeare’s R&J, Streetsigns Center
Nimble acting, direction and a particularly nimble adaptation conveyed a surreptitious four-person production of Romeo & Juliet at a military academy, on an empty stage, with the fewest of props–a red sash, a book, a trunk and a chair. While other shows muddied Shakespeare when placing his words in other worlds, this amazing work used the Bard to illuminate both.

4. Handler, Raleigh Ensemble Players
The rock, and the hard place: A group of damaged Appalachian parishioners believes God has ordered–and not requested–them to pick up poisonous serpents. But the real venom, we quickly learn, isn’t in the snakes. It comes out between the people when God works a miracle. The aftermath leaves the church asking some of the same questions about the relationships between transformation, redemption, creation and love as in The Shape of Things, above. Canady Vance-Tanguis, David Dossey and Zach Thomas are bewildered to meet faith in the flesh–and find how many questions remain unanswered when they do.

3. Dinner with Friends, Playmakers Rep
Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning two-act analysis of self-absorbed, mid-term marriages discerned the quick from the dead, and left January audiences to figure out which of the two their own relationships most resembled. Audiences squirmed as achievements in tech, design and ensemble united to ask the inconvenient question of all couples in the room: “How do we not get lost?” A timely mirror–and a hard one for many to look into.

2. Dream Boy, Streetsigns Center
The veracity in the acting, adaptation and direction gave us a harrowing, honest document on the coming of age of two boys in a small Southern town. Nathan and Roy explored the ambiguities of their own sexuality, and both attempted to undo the damage already done to one of them–and the damage to come when a homophobic world learns about them both.

1. All The King’s Men I & II, Burning Coal Theater
This sprawling, epic, large-cast, two-part cyclorama did, if not the impossible, then at least the very, very difficult: translate Robert Penn Warren’s tangled, psychologized saga of one Southern century into a gripping two-night show for stage. In the doing, adaptor and director Adrian Hall established a number of new regional benchmarks in adaptation, ensemble and individual acting, scope, imagination, and ambition. It’s also worth noting that King’s Men is a fitting reflection of the community where it took place: Ten years ago, this region could not have successfully produced this work. Now it can. EndBlock