This was the year that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival finally saw their ingénues grow up.

Sara Topham, now in older and sturdier roles, is still smattering her characters with a think layer of affected fairy dust, but for the most part the young women of this year’s company are bringing intelligence and guts to their varied and demanding roles.

Most notably, Cara Ricketts gives two excellent performances this season as a bawdy, scheming Maria in Twelfth Night and the elegant but shifty Ruth in The Homecoming. I’ve never been fond of Ricketts- her Perdita, her Celia, even her Portia back in 2009 were all simplistic and silly. She mined the comedy in her roles effectively but never achieved much depth in characters that can be very interesting but are often unfairly underestimated (as in Ricketts’ interpretations). But as her 2011 season kicked off with opening night of Twelfth Night, a new Ricketts hit the festival stage, one who was just as funny as she’d always been but was owning it much more. Instead of condescending to her character, she was teaming up with her to point out the absurdities in others. As such, her Maria is grounded and strong, driving the plot and pulling the supporting male characters behind her, tongues lagging and heads spinning. She has a similar but less amusing effect in the enigmatic Homecoming. The only woman on stage, her Ruth has strong command of her feminine wiles but doesn’t use them as an excuse to abandon her brain. She conducts the characters around her in a dance of will, commanding the stage opposite an ensemble of powerful men played by phenomenal actors.

Chilina Kennedy, the other ingénue I’ve long accused of detrimental lightness, is surprisingly grounded as Rose of Sharon in The Grapes of Wrath. Her more famous role, that of Mary Magdalene in this season’s biggest hit Jesus Christ Superstar, is directed in perhaps a bit of an easy manner but she does excellent work within that interpretation. Her chemistry with both leading men (Paul Nolan as Jesus and Josh Young as Judas) is utterly believable and her low maintenance apostle wrangler proves a charming and steadying presence within the rambunctious ensemble.

Amanda Lisman is back too. She was never actually gone, but the bright and relatable actress was sorely underused last season so it’s a delight to have her back in a leading role for the first time since her winning turn as Roxanne in 2009’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Her Lavinia is wonderfully angry, the portrayal of which is a tall order for a character marred with forced helplessness. But Lisman gets the effect across beautifully, making her victim anything but weak.

All this coincides with the arrival (or more prominent casting) of the fantastic Bethany Jillard, whose tough and conflicted Lady Anne is the only really well interpreted character in the underwhelmingly directed Richard III. Her quirky take on young Kate in The Little Years is also fantastically nuanced, despite its juvenility.

The loss of the wonderful Andrea Runge to an injury early in the season proved devastating for the less ingénue-y females in the season (Claire Lautier’s Tamora, Yanna McIntosh’s Queen Elizabeth and the delightful but unsatisfying Merry Wives can’t make up for a determined but inadequate standby Viola), but the younger, sweeter set has stepped it up this season to save the day a bit.

It’s about time.