It's been a difficult year - a contentious election, faltering economy, you name it. Happily for those of us in Tucson, there has been a respite: art. Sublime classical music. Great roots music. Gorgeous poetry. Thrilling visual art. Wondrous dance.

And, especially, theater.

This year, theater companies in the Old Pueblo gave us ways to both lose ourselves (The Rogue Theatre's fantastical "Shipwrecked!") and find ourselves (Etcetera's "Wit"). They also gave us rock 'n' roll (Arizona Theatre Company's "Next to Normal); Latin American politics (Live Theatre Workshop's "Death and the Maiden"), and a singing hero who is part-boy and part-bat (Arizona Repertory Theatre's "Bat Boy"). And that's just a bit of the thrills on Tucson stages in 2012.

Each year about this time, we present our Mac Awards for excellence in theater. The awards are named for the late Mary MacMurtrie, who spent much of the last century turning Tucson children into actors, directors, stage technicians and audiences that appreciate heart, honesty and intent as well as excellence.

Here's what moved us, fascinated us, and made us laugh and/or cry this year:

Best actress, play

The nominees:

• T. Loving turned out a tender portrayal of a dying woman struggling with a way to tell her son of her cancer in Borderlands Theater's "Agnes Under the Big Top: A Tall Tale."

• Patty Gallagher camped it up and made us love "The Winter's Tale" at The Rogue Theatre.

• Cynthia Jeffery was intense as a woman in Latin America with a need for revenge in Live Theatre's "Death and the Maiden."

• Cynthia Meier hit the mark as an ex-con with some unsavory instincts in The Rogue Theatre's "The Night Heron."

• Brenna Welsh had the difficult role of Li'l Bit, a girl who had been molested by an uncle in Arizona Repertory Theatre's production of "How I Learned to Drive." She gave the character heart and deep roots.

• Lucille Petty's outcast teen in Winding Road's "Speech & Debate" was a sharp reminder of how tough that age can be. She also impressed in her role of Anelle in Arizona Onstage Productions' "Steel Magnolias."

• Susan Claassen created a character with energy, sass and a strong will in her role as Vi in Invisible Theatre's "Look Ma We're Dancing."

The winner:

• Lesley Abrams is on stage way too infrequently these days. But when she does perform, it's worth the wait: She was riveting as Martha in Winding Road Theatre Ensemble's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Best Actress, musical

The nominees:

• Amy Erbe took us on a poignant journey from the first spark of romance to a painful divorce in Winding Road's musical "The Last Five Years."

• Andrea Ross gave the angst-ridden teen in ATC's "Next to Normal" a deeply rooted honesty.

• Anna Anderson's troubled and gifted Billie Holiday - and Anderson's beautiful voice - made Arizona Onstage Productions' staging of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" a hit.

The winner:

• Kendra Kassebaum's Diana had an aching honesty and touching vulnerability as she spiraled into madness in ATC's "Next to Normal."

Best Actor, play

• David Morden never faltered as the narrator in The Rogue's production of "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)."

• Denis Arndt was an intimidating, provocative and always compelling Rothko in ATC's "Red."

• Uncle Peck in Arizona Rep's "How I Learned to Drive" was a troubling, heartbreaking character in Sean Meshew's hands.

• Kevin Black gave his unlikable character a real likability and a fine arc in Invisible Theatre's "Mesa."

The winner:

• James Conway easily tackled the Shakespearean meter and the complex character of Brutus in Arizona Repertory Theatre Company's "Julius Caesar."

Best actor, musical

The nominees:

• Michael Schauble's "Bat Boy" at Arizona Repertory Theatre was graceful, strong-voiced, and managed to take the role of part-bat, part-boy very seriously, upping the humor content.

• Brian Levario's beautiful voice and solid acting chops shaped a character that was easy to love, and easy to hate, in Winding Road's "The Last Five Years."

• Jonathan Shew made real the handsome teen with a menacing streak in ATC's "Next to Normal."

• Micah Bond infused his Trekkie Monster with a huge personality and a deep, gravely voice in ART's "Avenue Q."

The winner:

A.J. Holmes' geeky teen in ATC's "Next to Normal" brought to life the aching teen years with honesty and a powerful voice.

Best Comedy

The nominees:

• Arizona Onstage Productions' "Steel Magnolias" was slow to start, but once it got going the laughs were plentiful and the emotions genuine.

• Arizona Theatre Company's production of the very silly "Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps" was a hoot.

• Invisible Theatre's world premiere of "Look Ma We're Dancing" was a solid, laugh-filled production.

• "The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead" isn't a particularly strong play, but Invisible Theatre's production of it definitely was.

The winner:

• We aren't sure "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)" qualifies as a comedy, but it brought us joy, so in this category it goes.

Best drama

The nominees:

• Borderlands Theater's complex "Agnes Under the Big Top: A Tall Tale," about strangers in a strange land, loneliness, connections and misconnections, was given a solid, clear production.

• "Red," the riveting play about the artist Rothko, received a terrific staging by Arizona Theatre Company.

• Etcetera staged a moving "Wit," about a woman dying of cancer.

• "The New Electric Ballroom" is achingly funny and deeply disturbing. The Rogue's production was storytelling at its best.

The winner:

• Live Theatre's "Death and the Maiden" was tense, troubling and very powerful.

Best musical

The nominees:

• "The Marvelous Wonderettes" was a sort of revue of the greatest hits of the '50s and '60s, and we couldn't stop bopping along.

• Any chance we get to hear Billie Holiday's music we take, and Arizona Onstage Productions gave us a sublime chance in its "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill."

• Winding Road Theatre Ensemble's poignant "The Last Five Years" whipped through the beginning and end of a relationship with solid singing and acting.

• "Jane Austen's Emma" had lovely music, beautiful costumes, a gorgeous set and rich acting and singing at Arizona Theatre Company.

The winner:

• Arizona Theatre Company's rock musical about mental illness, "Next to Normal," was exhilarating, from the music to the performances to the depth of the story.

Best Director, play

The nominees:

• Bryan Rafael Falcón was challenged with a beautifully written and convoluted script in The Rogue Theatre's "The Night Heron." We still aren't sure what it meant, but loved how Falcón gave it shape and purpose.

• Chris Wilken's direction of "Death and the Maiden" at Live Theatre Workshop gave an immediacy and poignancy to the play.

• Fred Rodriguez never went for the obvious or relied on easy emotions in his direction of Arizona Onstage Productions' "Steel Magnolias."

• Who knew a Brit could do so well with the great American novel? Stephen Wrentmore showed a respect for and deep understanding of "The Great Gatsby," staged by Arizona Theatre Company.

• "Glengarry Glen Ross" retained its horror and relevancy in the hands of Susan Arnold, who directed the play for Beowulf Alley Theatre.

• "Agnes Under the Big Top" has a script that skipped locales, time periods and language, yet Barclay Goldsmith wove it together beautifully in Borderlands' production.

• Terry Erbe's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" was a fresh take on the classic, and he pulled riveting performances from his actors, especially from his leading lady, Lesley Abrams.

• Teresa Simone infused Beowulf Alley's production of "Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh" with humor and grace.

The winner:

• Falcón's direction of The Rogue's black comedy "The New Electric Ballroom" resulted in a play that made the horror and the humor achingly vivid.

best director, musical

The nominees:

• Kevin Johnson has a knack for finding great talent for Arizona Onstage Productions' small, often stellar, musicals, and he didn't disappoint with "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill."

• Rob Gretta had a herculean task with the Arizona Repertory Theatre's production of "Avenue Q" - he had a huge cast, most of whom had to act, sing and handle puppets. He did an impressive job pulling it off.

The winner:

• How does one direct a rock musical that deals with a defiant teen, a bipolar mother and a dead son who won't go away? The way David Ira Goldstein did in Arizona Theatre Company's "Next to Normal." He gave the production clarity, movement and great compassion.

Special mentions

• Susan Claassen reprised her role of Edith Head in Invisible Theatre's "A Conversation with Edith Head" and reminded us once again of how the actress can so easily command a stage and tell a story.

• Carlisle Ellis returned to Live Theatre Workshop with her role in the one-woman show "Shirley Valentine," which won her a Mac in 2010. Ellis shimmied into the character's skin and made us all understand this woman aching to come into her own.

• Matt Walley and Angela Horchem, who make up the company dubbed Theatre3, used movement, mime, music and hats to create a fascinating evening of few words and many stories in Etcetera's production of "MixTape."

"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time."

Thomas Merton

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at or 573-4128.