Constant Star Five actresses portray the complex post-Reconstruction pioneer Ida B. Wells in Tazewell Thompson's glorious "play with music," but by the time the tribute's over, you'll think there should be more. For someone whose incredible work laid the moral bedrock for our country, crusader Wells has been sadly relegated to a footnote in history; yet her rich life reads like the stuff of myth. Born of slaves, she went to college, became a galvanizing journalist, filed the first civil rights lawsuit when she sued the Chesapeake railroad for discrimination, fought with Booker T. Washington over his conciliatory views of race equality, called President McKinley a fool, co-founded the NAACP, single-handedly slapped America awake to the horrors of lynching, marched with Susan B. Anthony for the women's vote, raised six children and loved her husband. It's all there in Thompson's kaleidoscopic treatment, augmented by spirituals emotionally sung by the actors and effectively staged by director Ron Jones. Each of the five actors — Cynthia Brown, Jo Anne Davis-Jones, Shaunyce Omar, Roenia Thompson and Detria Ward — shines differently, as if radiating another facet of Wells's intricate, prickly personality. She was sweet and sour, jubilant and hard as steel — very much like the country she so loved and fought to change. Through April 12. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG
Doubt Given its pretentious subtitle, "A Parable," as if this warrants deep, after-theater discussion, John Patrick Shanley's phenomenally successful Catholic-school whodunit is a play that should be hawked on Oprah's book club. Shallow, anemic and faintly homophobic, it has inexplicably been bestowed a Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize. It's not that good, for God's sake. What it does have, however, are four powerhouse roles that, when done just so, make this play speed by, keeping us on the edge of our seats and fooling us into thinking the play's better than it is. Prim and rigid Sister Aloysius (Julie Oliver) is convinced that unconventional and beloved Father Flynn (Patrick Jennings) has molested one of his students. She sets in motion her personal inquisition to investigate. Innocent Sister James (Kathryn Noser) has doubts, while the boy's mother (Sophia Flot-Warner) has her own unique take on the situation, temporarily dealing a setback to the fanatical Aloysius. Oliver doesn't need thumbscrews or the rack to define her character — a firm mouth and hands planted inside her habit will do. She's on a mission, and God himself cannot deter her. Although Jennings begins too high and has nowhere to go when his big scene occurs, his lower-decibel scenes with Sister James ring true. Whatever you think about Shanley's play, it's still a gripping crowd-pleaser. Through April 11. Company Onstage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG
Les Misérables If you love a good, old-fashioned, big, weepy musical, you'll swoon over Theater Under the Stars' production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Les Misérables, based on Victor Hugo's 19th-century novel of misery and woe. The story focuses on Jean Valjean (played by the dreamy-voiced Rob Evan), a good man who spends two decades in a French prison just for stealing a loaf of bread. But the three-hour musical follows multiple story lines as we watch Valjean grow from a bitter man just let out of prison to an old man who's grown satisfied with his hard life, spent caring for another man's child. The songs are filled with gooey-sweet high notes and the sort of lyrics meant to make your heart swell. This very attractive cast, filled with big-voiced scene stealers, doesn't disappoint. Every character, from Andrea Rivette's Fantine, the factory worker-turned-prostitute who gets Valjean to agree to take care of her daughter Cosette before she dies in a fit of coughing, to Anderson Davis's handsome Marius, the young man whom Cosette eventually marries, fulfills our expectations. They aren't all that complex, but they are appealing. There's a lot of fun in the show as well. It comes in the form of two slimy con artists played by the terrific Ed Dixon and Mary Gutzi, who make us laugh while they sing about stealing the gold out of a dead man's mouth. Filled with love, death and even a long battle scene, Les Misérables won't disappoint anyone who likes their musicals gooey with sweet sentimentality. Through April 5. The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — LW
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Steel Magnolias Although this production doesn't have the smoothest of ensemble casts, there's plenty of life left in Robert Harling's Southern-fried sextet at Texas Repertory Theatre. So sit a spell and let your hair down. This play has been around since 1987 and had an extremely popular film coaxed out of it, although the stage version's a whole lot better. It's more concentrated and without the annoying menfolk, who annoy the gals without ever being seen. Truvy's beauty salon is still a psychiatrist's couch for the ladies of Chinquapin, Louisiana, who, throughout the years, bond, gossip and face the world with sass, a smile and clouds of hair spray. They've all got man problems or a movie-of-the-week disease, but their easy charm and unpretentious wisecracks smooth out life's wrinkles like Botox for the brain. When all actors are on the same wavelength, the play soars, especially in the final scene, when tears and uproarious laughter go hand-in-hand like fruit cocktail and Bisquick. The six have their individual moments to shine, but Amanda Baird (ever-failing Shelby) and Dallas Milholland (flighty, ever-changing Anelle) shine most consistently. Elaine Edstrom, Kathy Davis, Jamie Higgs and Helen Myers round out the cast. Through April 11. 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — DLG