The actress’s participation in Arena’s 2013-14 season — on paper one of the most intriguing of Molly Smith’s 15 years at the helm of Washington’s flagship theater company — is by no means the only big-name news in the lineup. Actors Bill Pullman, Estelle Parsons, Stephen Spinella and Maurice Hines; playwright Lawrence Wright; choreographer Liz Lerman and directors Moises Kaufman, Jeff Calhoun and Kenny Leon all figure in a season that features four world premieres, two other new plays and a lot of drama steeped in 19th- and 20th-century history.
With plays tackling the Civil War, the Camp David peace accords, the war in Afghanistan and the career of Paul Robeson, the new Arena season of nine productions from September to June 2014 is a daring embrace of topical complexity. (For a change of pace, it also encompasses a revival of the jukebox revue “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”) Its parameters feel more sleekly thematic than Arena’s current season, dominated by popular old titles (“My Fair Lady”) and plays of recent Broadway vintage (“Good People,” “Other Desert Cities,” “The Mountaintop,” “Metamorphoses”).
Smith, who will direct three of the nine productions — including Turner in an in-the-round “Mother Courage” (Jan. 31 to March 9, 2014) — says the season exemplifies the harvesting of talent that occurs through the sowing over time of relationships.
“What you’re seeing and feeling is that it’s all part of the Arena tribe,” Smith said.
For instance, Wright’s “Camp David” (March 21 to May 4, 2014) — built on events surrounding the 1978 signing of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt — materialized as a proposal for a play by then-President Jimmy Carter’s aide Gerald Rafshoon, a longtime Washington theatergoer. It was submitted to Smith by Rocco Landesman, who chaired the National Endowment for the Arts during President Obama’s first term, and who has given talks at Arena.
“Rocco called me and said, ‘Would you be interested in a project around President Carter and Camp David?’ ” Smith recalled. “And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ One of our focuses is the American President’s Project.’ ”
The program’s first commission is next month’s world premiere in Arena’s Kogod Cradle of Tazewell Thompson’s“Mary T. and Lizzy K,” about the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, the freed slave Elizabeth Keckly. Wright, whose solo show “My Trip to al-Qaeda” played to admiring reviews six years ago at the Kennedy Center, was recruited to write it, with Smith directing.
Actors with leadership bearing should get out their glossies and their résumés: “Camp David’s” four characters are Carter and first lady Rosalynn; Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
After a return engagement this summer of “One Night With Janis Joplin,” the Arena season begins in earnest in Arena’s Kreeger Theater with “The Velocity of Autumn,” (Sept. 6 to Oct. 20) a play by Eric Coble that was announced for Broadway this spring, with Smith directing and Oscar-winning Parsons (“Bonnie and Clyde”) and Tony-winning Spinella (“Angels in America”) starring. Plans for that commercial production — and Smith’s bow as a Broadway director — fell through. So now, Parsons will make her Arena debut as the heroine of Coble’s drama, about an elderly woman who, facing consignment to a nursing home, barricades herself with explosives in her Brooklyn brownstone.
Charles Randolph-Wright’s “Love in Afghanistan,” a wartime romance between a hip-hop artist and an interpreter, will settle into the Kogod Cradle from Oct. 11 to Nov. 17, as only the first full-fledged premiere to emerge from Arena’s three-year-old resident playwright program. As that piece ends its run, Hines’s “Tappin’ Through Life”(Nov. 15to Dec. 29) — an autobiography told in song and tap, starring Hines and directed by Calhoun — starts in the Kreeger as one of Arena’s holiday shows.
The other is a stage version by Todd Kreidler of the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (Nov. 29 to Jan. 5, 2014), a landmark for its treatment of the subject of interracial marriage, that will be directed by Leon, who staged the Broadway production of “The Mountaintop’’ by onetime Arena resident playwright Katori Hall.
The year 2014 at Arena will be rung in by a pair of theater titans. The life of Robeson, the storied actor and activist, will be recounted in “The Tallest Tree: A Portrait of Paul Robeson” (Jan. 10 to Feb. 16, 2014), a solo piece by Daniel Beaty (represented by past Arena stints with “Resurrection”). He will play more than 20 characters in the Robeson story in the Kreeger, under the direction of Kaufman (“33 Variations”).
The other midwinter titan is Turner, who spearheads a rare Arena departure from its accustomed menu of works by American writers for this foray into the German Brecht’s “Mother Courage And Her Children” (Jan. 31 to March 9). The company detoured into Brecht several years ago with a version of “A Man’s A Man.” Smith, who will stage “Mother Courage” in Arena’s largest space, the Fichandler, calls Turner a natural Mother Courage, as they share a trait of being “absolutely ferocious.”
After “Camp David” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”(April 25 to June 8, 2014) — the latter, a songbook of the music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to be directed by “Joplin’s” Randy Johnson — is the season finale: Lerman’s “Healing Wars” (June 6-29, 2014). An entry in a nationwide exploration by regional theaters and universities of the Civil War on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, the piece will star Pullman and an ensemble of dancers, who will portray soldiers and the people who have tended to their wounds since the time of the War Between the States. Details of that ambitious project will be revealed in a news conference at Arena this week.