In October, when SpeakEasy Stage Company presented “Admissions,’’ Joshua Harmon’s scathing look at the hypocrisy of upper-middle-class white progressives, the five-member cast included respected veterans of the Boston theater scene such as Maureen Keiller, Marianna Bassham, Cheryl McMahon, and Michael Kaye.
But it was 20-year-old Nathan Malin who had audiences buzzing. Still only a junior at Boston University, Malin brought a mixture of subtle nuance and high-voltage intensity to the challenging role of Charlie, a white prep school senior who undergoes a transformation after he is deferred by Yale while his biracial friend is accepted.
The young actor generated particularly memorable sparks during an extended monologue in which Charlie’s anger and disappointment pour out, scalding his parents. His impassioned aria was laced with self-pity and more than a little entitlement, but Malin made sure we also saw the genuine confusion underlying Charlie’s tirade. While there was nothing admirable about Charlie’s reaction, in Malin’s portrayal the character’s verbal flailings registered not just as the outpouring of a spoiled kid, but also as markers of how lost and unmoored that kid felt.
Malin was just one of numerous young performers who occupied a prominent place in the overall portrait of 2019 in Boston theater. This was a year when new (or relatively new) faces made their presence felt, month after month.
In part, the abundance of youthful standouts reflected the depth of a local talent pool that is constantly replenished by the strong theater programs at area universities and conservatories. But for young actors to shine, they obviously need roles to play, and a growing number of young playwrights are eager to provide those roles by crafting stories centered on adolescents or young adults. They include Sarah DeLappe, now 29, a 2017 Pulitzer finalist for “The Wolves,’’ which revolves around a high school girls’ soccer team and was presented at Lyric Stage Company this year, with an ensemble consisting almost entirely of young actresses; and Boston-based Alexis Scheer, who turns 28 on Sunday and is the author of “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord,’’ about four teenage girls trying to summon the spirit of Pablo Escobar.
Whatever the reasons for this year’s youth movement, it was a sign of health, because a theater community, like any organism, depends for its vitality on constant renewal. After all, the possibility of discovery, of being surprised when a new talent bursts forth, is central to the lore and lure of the theater. It’s part of what propels us there, even on cold winter nights.
We want to be in the audience when a young Audra McDonald lights up the stage in “Carousel’’ on the way to the first of her six Tony Awards, or when Sutton Foster steps up from understudy to the title role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie’’ and proceeds to make it her own (and win a Tony). The obscurity-to-stardom scenario is marbled into theater mythology, immortalized in that backstage moment in “42nd Street’’ when chorus-girl Peggy Sawyer is thrust into the lead role of a Broadway musical and the director exhorts her backstage: “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!’’
Nothing quite that dramatic occurred in Boston in 2019, but there was a sense of new blood being consistently pumped into the theater’s arteries. Take Krystal Hernandez, 24, who graduated from Salem State University in 2017 and this year seemed to be everywhere.
In January, Hernandez portrayed a teenage daughter grappling with complex emotions as her mother faces possible deportation in “Miss You Like Hell,’’ a collaboration between Company One Theatre and the American Repertory Theater. Hernandez’s shattering performance of the title number furnished “Miss You Like Hell’’ with its emotional core. Then Hernandez took on the lead role in Scheer’s “Laughs in Spanish’’ at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, portraying the beleaguered young operator of a Miami art gallery who has to cope simultaneously with the theft of artworks and a visit from her movie-star mother. Then, moving to a smaller role on a bigger stage, Hernandez registered vividly in Huntington Theatre Company’s “Quixote Nuevo’’ as the big-hearted co-owner of a desert bar who provided a warm welcome to the wandering protagonist.
In Company One Theatre’s May production of Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,’’ 21-year-old Quentin Nguyen-duy, a student in BU’s School of Theatre, captured the restlessness and ambivalence of a former captain in the South Vietnamese air force who is trying to adjust to life in an Arkansas refugee camp in 1975, missing the wife and children he had to leave behind in Saigon but strongly attracted to a fellow refugee.
In September, just a few months after Katrina Z Pavao received her MFA from Boston Conservatory at Berklee, she stole the show as flower-shop clerk Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors’’ at Lyric Stage Company of Boston. The poignantly yearning quality Pavao, 25, brought to the character culminated in her heart-piercing, you-could-hear-a-pin-drop rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green.’’
With any of the young performers who made such an impression this year, the overarching question is how many will ultimately stick around and forge careers in Boston theater rather than decamp for New York or Los Angeles. That’s a question only time can answer. In the meantime, let’s enjoy their work while hoping to see more of it.