Correction:

Earlier versions of this article misstated the duration of this summer’s return engagement of “Oklahoma!” at Arena Stage. The musical is returning for three months, not four months. This version has been updated.

Molly Smith, at the helm of Arena Stage’s renaissance

For some reason, questions about the remarkable year Molly Smith is experiencing as head of the revitalized Arena Stage propels her into a far more harrowing subject. Fifteen years ago, at the age of 43, Smith found out she had breast cancer, a diagnosis that at once overwhelmed, infuriated and terrified her.

“I don’t think that it defines me, but I think that it was a huge turning point, being nose to nose with death,” she recalls of the struggle with the illness that hit her in the last phase of her artistic life in Alaska. Her family thought she should pursue homeopathic treatments, but she wanted nothing less than a nuclear assault on her disease and an oncologist who would not only prescribe aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, but also say to her — and mean it: “You are going to survive and thrive.”

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“I wanted to actually burn cancer out of my system,” she says. “When someone goes through something as life-altering as cancer, usually they need to relax. For me, the need was to move past it.”

Smith, now in her late 50s, is sitting in her sleek, sunlit office with views of the harbor, inside the gleaming Arena mega-structure on Maine Avenue and Sixth Street SW that opened last fall after a $135 million renovation. Her unprompted segue into a description of a trial so personal was jarring at first. But then, of course, her acknowledgment of that ordeal illuminated something about a tenacious spirit friends and colleagues have long recognized in her. If tumors were trying to waylay her, they had to be quashed — but good. She had other missions in mind.

As Arena’s renaissance season on its Southwest Washington campus draws to a close — the final main stage production, the world premiere of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” in play form, opened last month — Smith is thinking a lot these days about obstacles overcome. In the 13 years since her arrival as the third artistic director in Arena’s history, she has faced other difficult struggles: competing in an ever more vigorous marketplace for theater; raising more than $100 million for the rehabilitation of Arena’s crumbling buildings; and trying to sustain an audience over the protracted construction period, during which the company performed in Crystal City and on U Street NW.

But perhaps the biggest challenge of all for Smith had been one that concerned the essence of artistic leadership. Could she revitalize an institution that had, in the minds of some of its own boosters, grown predictable, even stale, by the time she arrived at the end of the 1990s? Did she have the gumption, vision and the smarts to take Washington’s flagship theater in a vibrant new direction?

For quite a long time, it appeared that fulfilling such a lofty agenda might be beyond her capabilities. Any number of times during the 2000s, the quality of Arena’s productions fell distressingly short of the standard set by the troupe’s founder, Zelda Fichandler. Along with the occasional winner in Smith’s lineups of works by American playwrights and composers, the misfires piled up: lackluster classics, peculiar holiday events. Although her selections for Arena could be adventurous — as in her tackling of Sarah Ruhl’s difficult, 220-minute “Passion Play” in 2005 — at other times she would disastrously overindulge the editorializing, a penchant that did in her shrill 2006 treatment of “Cabaret.”

As the decade wore on, the picks seemed to get sloppier, bottoming out in 2009, with a collegiate-level revue of the songs of Irving Berlin.

The grousing was heard in theater circles all over town: Was Molly Smith, by virtue of her taste and choices, leading Arena into inexorable decline? Was the venerable institution destined to lose its place at the front of the line?

And then, startlingly, as this season unfolded, doubts turned to huzzahs. As Arena prepared to move back to Maine and Sixth — transformed by Vancouver architect Bing Thom into the Mead Center for American Theater — Smith announced a revolutionary project, financed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to put half a dozen playwrights on the payroll. The launch of that plan was quickly followed by an impressive series of offerings in the rehabilitated Fichandler Stage and Kreeger Theater and the new showpiece space, the Kogod Cradle.

Beginning with “Oklahoma!,” which re-christened the largest of the theaters, the Fichandler, Arena has sped through the fall and spring with festivals celebrating veteran playwrights, new plays by emerging writers and visiting productions by important regional theaters as well as local troupes, many of which have proved to be box office and critical hits. As if to underscore the season’s potent record, Arena is bringing back “Oklahoma!” this summer with its original cast for a three-month run, the longest return engagement of any show in its 61-year history.

The question is: How has this theater so dramatically changed course? The answer lies in educability and patience. Arena’s board of trustees stuck with Smith for the long haul as she learned about the institution, refined her mission and built her staff. And in concert with key lieutenants brought in from the outside such as Associate Artistic Director David Dower, she was able, as the company was waiting to move back into its Southwest Washington headquarters, to fashion a concrete vision for what Arena might become.

“This was a very focusing milestone,” Dower says, of the reopening of the refurbished Arena. “You get one shot to open a building like this, to say, ‘This is who we are — now.’ She and I had many conversations about what she imagined she was doing here. I think the doing of that has helped her see what her priorities are.”

Smith acknowledges her debt to Dower and others in Arena’s expanding brain trust: Next month, Polly Carl, director of artistic development at Chicago’s nationally renowned Steppenwolf Theatre, arrives to head up Arena’s new play institute and programming. But Arena’s board attributes the company’s newfound vibrancy to the way Smith has marshaled her resources.

“We feel very fortunate that everything has come together for her and for us,” says Steven Bralove, who was on the search committee that recommended Smith’s hiring and remains a member of Arena’s board of trustees. “Everything she said she was going to do, she did.”

“She listens, she’s sensitive to the environment she’s in, and she figures out how to make it happen,” observes Beth Newburger Schwartz, who’s been an Arena trustee since 1987. “And that,” Schwartz adds, “is very rare.”

Talking to Smith about Arena’s physical and programmatic metamorphosis, you’d think nothing particularly seismic has occurred. Although she’s known to have a temper when her back is up, these days her composure provides little indication of the pressure cooker enveloping her. “It’s been the culmination of so much thinking and working, and now we’re here,” she says of the institution’s evolution.

Of the need to think and rethink the way she runs the place, Smith says: “There have been a lot of challenges. I think I require them. And somehow I’ve really been fortunate to have people around me who believed in me, too.”

That drive is a key to the maturing of her vision for Arena, one that has refined and broadened the company’s role. Arena seems to have gained a new confidence both in the nurturing of new plays and in acknowledging that a big company with a $17 million annual budget does not have to produce all its substantive hits in-house, as demonstrated by the visit of Steppenwolf Theatre’s acclaimed “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In the aftermath of its well-received stay in the capital, it is now going in the fall to Broadway.

Dower, who arrived from San Francisco in 2006, has pushed the institution to think of itself as a creative force of potentially national prominence. Edgar Dobie, who once served as point man in New York to Andrew Lloyd Webber and later helped run the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., was hired as managing director in 2009 and gave Arena additional credibility in Broadway circles. The recruitment of Carl is a huge boost to the efforts to burnish the company’s image as a birthplace for material. (For next season, Arena has scheduled two world premieres, one of them a potentially Broadway-bound musical version of “Like Water for Chocolate,” as well as the revised incarnations of two other new works.)

Essentially, though, it is Smith’s ethos that rules, even when her taste can confound those around her. Schwartz, for instance, recalls her bewilderment when Smith was making the crucial choices for the troupe’s gala return to Southwest. “Molly came down to our house in the country for New Year’s Eve and we had this pick-the-opening-musical night,” she explains. “Everyone is sitting around, naming their favorite musical, and she says, ‘I’m thinking about “Oklahoma!” ’

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. That is the most ridiculous choice. If they couldn’t make a go of it on Broadway [in its last revival], what do you think we’re going to do with it? We’re going to open with a mess!’ ”

Smith, Schwartz now concedes, proved her wrong. “And opening night,” she adds, “was so spectacular.”

From way back, Smith has practiced a “my-way” philosophy; as an 11-year-old in Yakima, Wash., she and a friend were making up games and thought it would be fun to start a “dial-a-dinner” business. Apparently, the persuasiveness of her pitch led neighbors to mistake it for the real thing. “Three days later, we were at the dinner table, the phone rings, and it’s people wanting their dinner,” she recalls, laughing. To this day, she likes to go her own independent way. The Arena board was none too thrilled, for example, when Smith announced that she would be absenting herself for more than a month of this critical season to direct “My Fair Lady” at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. She did it anyway. The show opened late last month to mixed reviews.

Still, she’s grown accustomed to perplexed reactions. They were just the sort she encountered when, as a young woman pursuing a theater career in Washington, D.C., after finishing Catholic University, she declared her intention to return to Juneau, Alaska, where she had gone to high school. (Smith was also married at the time and stayed married for 19 years. Her mate for many years now has been Suzanne Blue Star Boy, a policy advocate for Native American issues.)

The pilgrimage to Alaska set in motion the artistic decisions that would ultimately lead her back to the District. In 1979, in Alaska’s insular state capital (population 30,000), Smith had what seemed to many the audacious, impractical idea of establishing a theater that would perform works reflecting Alaska’s traditions and peoples.

“The idea at the time was so grandiose: How could one imagine a town one-tenth the size of Anchorage pulling off a professional theater?” says Bruce Botelho, the mayor of Juneau and a longtime acquaintance of Smith’s. Soon enough, Botelho, then a young lawyer in town, was a believer, convinced by what he describes as her “incredible drive to make it happen and the charisma to draw people into that vision.”

Her first show at the newly christened Perseverance Theatre set the tone: “Pure Gold,” a live-performance oral history. “I went out and interviewed 35 pioneers in their 70s and 80s,” Smith remembers. “Tlingit people, Filipinos, prospectors. What I hadn’t realized was that it would have a deeper meaning to the young people. They had moved there for all the reasons these pioneers had.”

“It was tremendous,” Botelho says. “Here was art, coming to the people. We didn’t know what hit us.”

Smith stayed for two decades, and you can see the progression in how she’s led these two companies: She took her Alaskan notion of indigenous drama and expanded it at Arena into a program devoted all but exclusively to American plays. It was a narrowing in thematic orientation from her strong-minded Arena predecessors, Fichandler and Douglas C. Wager. But it was also required some reeducation. She had to learn how to cater to her audience’s tastes without seeming to pander, as she did in a 2005 production of “Damn Yankees,” when she had an audience member throw out the first ball and an actor playing a hawker of Nationals pennants.

On the more substantive side, she made it her task to build interest in Arena’s offerings among minorities, making the company a home base for black artists such as playwright-director Charles Randolph-Wright, who staged Arena’s version of the Pulitzer-winning “Ruined” and is, for the duration of a grant, one of the dramatists on staff. “There are very few places where that can happen,” says Randolph-Wright, who has worked on eight productions during Smith’s term. “It’s like a family. That’s what Arena has been to me.”

The success of “Oklahoma!” has been a legitimizing event for Arena in more than just financial terms. Produced as the inaugural show in the refurbished Fichandler, the piece was seminally American and her cast, filled with actors of all races and ethnic identities, seemed a kind of idealized mirror for the audience she envisioned for her theater. The musical, too, brought her back to the spirit of the pioneer, the image that had first sparked her theatrical imagination back in Juneau.

All that and Broadway came sniffing around, too. The transfer didn’t happen, but the attention generated by talk of a move was almost as valuable. We’re back, Arena seemed to be declaring, to the world at large.

Smith looks at the horizon from her office window, a very different view from the one she had not all that long ago, in drearier digs on this very same corner. “It’s been about climbing this huge, tremendous mountain,” she says. “So here we are, on top of the mountain — looking for the next one.”

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