By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Dec 20, 2017 at 6:56 PM

As the end of the year approaches, it’s time to take stock of 2017 and spend a moment marveling at all we’ve experienced and accomplished. For a theater nerd, it’s also time to look back on the performances I’ve seen in the past twelve months and celebrate the ones that made me think and feel more deeply, astonished me in their originality and impressed me in their execution.

All "best of the year" lists of performances are subjective and incomplete because it’s impossible to see everything, everywhere. But as a devoted theater patron and unabashed fan of the medium, I’d like to recognize the following Milwaukee-area productions for providing extraordinary moments of artistry and storytelling over the past year.

Best Solo Performance: Jessie Fisher in "Grounded," Milwaukee Rep

(PHOTO: Michael Brosilow)

In this harrowing 75-minute tour de force, Fisher flawlessly portrayed a hotshot Air Force pilot whose life and career take a sharp turn when she is grounded from flying due to an unexpected pregnancy. Becoming a mother and wife changes her, but so does her new assignment: sitting in a little room in the deserts of Nevada and coordinating bombing missions in Afghanistan via drones. Fisher’s emotional journey was staggering and her storytelling was flawless.

Most Heartbreaking Romance: "The Few," Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

(PHOTO: Paul Ruffalo)

In this unorthodox romance by Samuel D. Hunter, two very damaged people must face up to their dashed dreams, their shortcomings and their past mistakes before finally coming together to start again. Jim Ridge and Mary MacDonald Kerr both gave performances of a lifetime, inhabiting desperate and imperfect people who are looking for love, acceptance, stability and poetry in a very unfriendly and lonely world.

Most Beautiful Design: "Silent Sky," Next Act Theater

(PHOTO: Ross Zentner)

Lauren Gunderson's play celebrates Henrietta Leavitt and other women astronomers in the early 20th century who got very little encouragement or recognition for their work. Moving among many different locations and decades, the team of scenic designer Rick Rasmussen, lighting and video designer Aaron Sherkow, costume designer Jason Orlenko, sound designer David Cecsarini and composer Jenny Giering not only created a gorgeous world for their character to live in, they also explored the heavens onstage, leaving audiences marveling at the same stars that captivated the women who studied them.

Best Evening of Musical Mayhem: "Murder for Two," Milwaukee Rep

(PHOTO: Michael Brosilow)

A distinct thrill of live theater is watching performers do the seemingly impossible, right in front of you. Much of the appeal of "Murder for Two" is the ridiculous skill involved for two actors to embody a full cast of characters in a silly whodunit, accompany themselves on the piano while they sing and interact with the crowd – all at break-neck speed. In this perfect show for the Stackner Cabaret, Matt Edmonds and Joe Kinosian not only accomplish this comic juggling act, they do it with aplomb.

Outstanding Ensemble: "Great Expectations," Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

(PHOTO: Paul Ruffalo)

Directed with astounding creativity and theatricality by Molly Rhode, a strong ensemble of some of Milwaukee’s best actors brought the sprawling Dickens classic "Great Expectations" to the Cabot stage. Andrew Crowe, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Karen Estrada, Chike Johnson, Josh Krause, Deborah Staples and Zach Thomas Woods created dozens of unforgettable characters, while also taking turns narrating the story, aided only by a library of books for sets and props.

Best Out-of-Town Production: "A View From the Bridge," American Players Theatre

It’s a shame that Ivo Von Hove’s production of this Arthur Miller classic was playing at the Goodman Theatre this fall at the same time that APT mounted their version, because it begged comparison between the two instead of singular focus on the incredible accomplishment in Spring Green. Led by the incomparable James DeVita, American Players Theater’s all-star cast infused this story of honor, love and betrayal with raw power and emotion. Barely contained in the indoor Touchstone space, the anguish, anger and sorrow of Melisa Pererya, Colleen Madden, Brian Mani and Casey Hoekstra was palpable. Though the final scenes of this epic were inevitable, the tragic fall of DeVita’s Eddie Carbone sent shockwaves through the audience and left an indelible mark. It was truly storytelling at its finest.