Arena Stage, which began Washington's resident theater community nearly 35 years ago, won five of the 14 new Helen Hayes Awards, including that for best resident production for "Cloud 9," at a ceremony last night filled with show business glitter and glamor.
The New Playwrights' Theatre, which is fighting for its financial life, landed four of the prizes, including those for best new play and best supporting actor and actress. The best new play was "The Beautiful Lady," by Elizabeth Swados and Paul Schmidt. Tami Tappan, who tearfully thanked her parents and brother for driving her to rehearsals, and Steven Dawn won the supporting acting awards for their performances in "Lydie Breeze."
Celebrities, all of whom had a Washington connection of one kind or another, gave the evening its shine. But the locals showed they could produce an awards show that was as smooth and polished -- and long -- as any other.
Hayes herself reigned like a queen, watching the show from a box seat above the stage. Noting that the National Theatre, where the ceremony was held, contains a lobby named after the Washington-born actress, she said, "I'm an award now, and a lobby."
The only gaffe was a minor one, when the Kennedy Center's Marta Istomin headed for the stage to accept an award for Best Actor in a touring production for Derek Jacobi in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "Cyrano de Bergerac." Unbeknownst to her, the Folger's John Neville Andrews had been asked to accept the award for Jacobi and was right behind her. She graciously got off the stage -- returning later to accept an award for Outstanding Touring Production for the same play.
The glamor queen of the evening, one-time Wonder Woman Lynda Carter, who is now married to a Washington attorney, tried valiantly but managed to mispronounce several names and forgot one all together. It was an exciting evening, she said, "especially watching that man dance." She was referring to dancer Maurice Hines, who had just wowed the crowd with a routine from "Balletap U.S.A."
Halo Wines, a stalwart of Arena's company for many years, won the Best Actress in a Resident Production Award for her two roles, one as a Victorian colonialist and the other as a contemporary middle-aged woman in transition in "Cloud 9."
Wines, a popular choice judging from the cheers coming from the balcony, said she was honored to be among the six nominees and "indeed all of you . Let's all do a play together."
Arena also captured the Best Actor in a Resident Production, Francois de la Giroday for "Man and Superman." He was one of the longest-winded winners, pulling out several pages of notes and making a plea for the theaters in Washington to function more as a community.
The smaller theaters in Washington were not ignored. Dan Wagner won the Lighting Design award for the Studio's "My Sister in This House." Lewis Folden of New Playwrights' won the Set Design prize for "Lydie Breeze."
Marjorie Slaiman, Arena's longtime resident costume designer, won the Costume Design award for "Man and Superman," and Gary Pearle won the Directing prize for "Cloud 9." Pearle sent his older brother David to accept the award for him.
Another absent winner was Estelle Getty, who played the mother in Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy," won the award for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Touring Production. Diane Frantantoni won the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Touring Production prize for her role in "Cats."
Two special awards were presented. Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl won the Helen Hayes Humanitarian Award for her work in setting up a system that describes stage action to visually impaired people. These devices, which are inaudible to other theater goers, are now considered a model for other cities.
And a representative of the Lipton Tea Co., which sponsored Helen Hayes' first radio "Theater of the Air," presented the Sir Thomas Lipton award to Lady Marjory Wright, for unspecified theatrical activities. Lady Wright, wife of the British ambassador to Washington, and a one-time actress, has plunged into the Washington theater scene with gusto, sitting on boards and hosting events to help various theaters raise money. She seemed surprised at the award, a hefty bust of Sir Thomas, in his day a world famous yachtsman as well as a successful businessman.
"I'd like to thank various people who made this possible," said Lady Wright with unshakably British elan. "Margaret Thatcher. She had the great sense to send my husband to Washington. And the queen, who said he was okay."
With that she looked closely at the statue and said, "It's really unbelievable . . . I'm going to wear it."
The famous and those who would be donned evening clothes for the event, which included a dinner before the show and a dance afterward. Among the celebrities from near and far were Jose Ferrer (who directed "The Four Poster" at Olney Theater in the '50s), George Grizzard (who first acted at the Bailey's Crossroads Barn Theater), singer Karen Akers, television actors Bruce Weitz and Robert Foxworth (who both worked Arena Stage), and playwright John Guare, who went to Georgetown Unversity and wrote "Lydie Breeze." For master of ceremonies there was Robert Prosky, who until recently was a familiar figure at Arena Stage. Now he calls the roll on "Hill Street Blues" (a roll that includes Weitz) and makes movies.
One-time Madeira School drama teacher Calvin Remsberg flew in from Chicago to sing his song from "Cats," and Karen Allen, who was the live-in caretaker of the Washington Project for the Arts before she was a "Raider of the Lost Ark," slouched in to present the supporting-actor award. With her was director Tony Abeson from New York, who ran the Washington Theater Lab 10 years ago, which Allen attended, at a time when there were few alternative playhouses to Arena, the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre.
Arena's Richard Bryant, president of the Awards Society, noted that the 20 theaters collectively produced 103 plays that were attended by 1.4 million people, a sign of the growth in theater here and part of the reason the Awards had been inaugurated.
"Ten years ago it was quite different," said Abeson. "Many of the gifted in this town were leaving for that place called New York . . . The tree is now true because its roots are in its own soil."
The winners were chosen from among nearly 100 productions given in the Washington area between May 1984 and February 1985. To be eligible, theaters have to be large enough to pay their actors regularly and give at least 16 performances of each play. Twenty theaters were eligible.
Two levels of review produced the winners. A pool of 50 nominators, two suggested by each theater and 10 chosen by the society, provided the six people who saw each show. If at least four of the six made nominations from a particular show, the seven judges went to see it. They then voted and the top five vote-getters in each category were nominated.
The seven judges were headed by Richard L. Coe, drama critic emeritus of The Washington Post. The other judges were: Nick Olcott, an actor and president of the Actor's Center; Faiga Levine, theater critic; Roger Meersman, theater critic and head of the University of Maryland's drama department; Charles Mark, a playwright and editor of Arts Reporting Service; Frederick Lee, a director and a teacher at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and Kathy Dwyer, program director at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation.