Correction:

An earlier version of this article excluded “Henry V,” the third play in Folger’s season, and attributed Janet Griffin’s explanation of her selection of “Henry V” to “Twelfth Night.” This version has been corrected.

Patricia Wettig, ‘ready for battle’ in ‘The Normal Heart’ at Arena Stage

Patricia Wettig, who can be recognized by anyone who’s owned a TV in the past 25 years (“thirtysomething,”Brothers and Sisters” and “Prison Break”) is swapping the screen for the stage to star in “The Normal Heart” at Arena Stage.

Theater, she said, “is so different [from TV]. . . . In film, it’s all about getting it one time. Let alone that if you didn’t get the whole thing right, they can edit it.” In theater, “you really have to figure out how to sustain a performance, as opposed to how arrive at a performance.”

(Scott Suchman) - Patricia Wettig as Dr. Emma Brookner, with Jon Levenson, in Arena Stage's production of "The Normal Heart."

Wettig, although perhaps most famous for her television roles, is hardly a theater rookie. She got her start as a member of the Circle Repertory Company in New York and has worked as a playwright, too; her play “My Andy” was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2005.

In “The Normal Heart,” a play about the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City, Wettig plays Emma Brookner, a physician whose childhood bout of polio left her wheelchair-bound. The wheelchair was tricky to master at first, she said, “like learning to drive a car. . . . But it actually becomes second nature.”

It’s a good thing she has that part on autopilot because Wettig needs all her energy for the theatrical task at hand. “You’re like a little soldier,” she said of working on the production. “You have to come ready for battle.”

“The Normal Heart,” is just as much a call to arms as it is an anthropological study of a place and a panic that many audience members won’t remember or recognize. For that very reason, Wettig said, “I hope we get a young audience. . . . People that are really moved and rocked by this play [are] really young audiences. . . . It wasn’t that long ago, but it hasn’t been in their lifetime.”

Even given the passage of time, “I don’t find it dated,” Wettig added. “I actually feel that the play, when it was first done, was more like a polemic. It was a battle cry. . . . I think it’s evolved to be a more artistic piece. And it has a profound message, not just about AIDS, [but] about compassion for people that are different, for people that are suffering.”

Through July 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-554-9066; www.­arenastage.org.

Breakdown, then a big break

Alyssa Gagarin was sitting on the side of highway. Her hair was in curlers, her dress was on a hanger, her car — her beloved gold Saturn, the vehicle in which she learned to drive, in which she’d road-tripped in last summer when she made a cross-country trek to Los Angeles — was, in her words, “completely dead.” She was stranded an hour outside her destination, New York City, where the Shakespeare Theatre Company was holding callbacks for “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” She didn’t even have a smartphone to search for the nearest gas station. And she was bawling.

The then-Penn State senior had a callback for “Merry Wives,” which would be her first professional gig ever. There was only one thing standing between her and her big break, and that was a broken-down car.

Gagarin called her parents. She was, by her own description, “a sobbing mess.” “I don’t want to go to this audition,” she said. “Just, someone come get me now!”

Her parents talked her down (“Don’t pass up this opportunity”), insisting she stick it out. When your kid’s wanted to do one thing since she was 8 years old and she has a serious shot at it, you don’t let her ditch the dream because of a car failure.

The tow-truck driver who carried away the car’s corpse dropped off Gagarin at the train station so she could get to New York that night, and STC rescheduled her callback for the morning.

Though she was “devastated” about the car, Gagarin says everything else worked out for the best: The 22-year-old Bethesda native landed the role of Anne Page in “Merry Wives,” which led to her being cast as Emily in Ford’s Theatre’s 75th anniversary production of “Our Town” (the shows share a director, Stephen Rayne). She’d been out of college for all of three days when “Merry Wives” rehearsals began. Pomp, circumstance, showtime.

“It hit me all at once,” she said of the sudden transition from college to the professional world. “I had to adapt, [but] everyone was so kind. I did feel right at home.”

Through July 15 at Sidney Harmon Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.­org.

British invasion at Folger

Keeping with the British theme of the summer — Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics in London, never-ending coverage of Kate Middleton’s shiny hair — the Folger Theatre is kicking off its 2012-13 season by hosting the Washington debut of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The Globe’s touring production of “Hamlet” will arrive at the Folger for 18 performances in September.

“It’s an eight-person cast,” said Janet Griffin, the Folger’s artistic producer. “It’s a very tight, small, fast-paced ‘Hamlet.’ ” She’s hoping that “the partnership [between Folger and the Globe] will continue in some way. We might do more co-productions [or] take something there.”

The Folger will follow “Hamlet” with “The Conference of the Birds” by Jean-Claude Carriere and Peter Brook, based on the poem by Farid Uddi Attar. “It’s a story of a journey, a pilgrimage to find God,” Griffin said, one that captivated Aaron Posner 10 years ago.

Posner will direct, and the show, which opens in October, will feature original music performed by Tom Teasley.

Henry V, directed by Robert Richmond, will open in January. “We thought was very appropriate, to open this just after the inauguration,” said Griffin. “It’s very much about political sway and leadership.” “Twelfth Night,” also directed by Richmond (who directed last season’s “Othello”), will close out the season next April.

The season’s theme is “a journey of the imagination,” although Griffin said the theme came to her after the plays were selected, not before.

“We realized all these plays had something in common,” she said.

 
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