Arena Stage producing director and cofounder Zelda Fichandler last night received the seventh annual Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service in Dramatic Arts. Fichandler was honored before about 150 people at a candlelight dinner and ceremony hosted by the American Theater Association (ATA) in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

A check for $16,000 and a sculpture were presented to Fichandler by Jeremiah P. Shea, chairman of the board of the Bank of Delaware, which administers the Common Wealth Trust, a private charitable foundation created under the will of business executive Ralph Hayes. Previous winners have included Laurence Olivier, Tennessee Williams and Stephen Sondheim.

During a tribute from the ATA, Bank of Delaware and the jurors, actor Corey Wayne said of Fichandler, "With fastidious attention to every detail, her ability to throw body and soul into every project and expect the same of others, with ferocious courage and charismatic persuasion, she created a new audience for theater in America."

Among those attending last night's ceremony were members of Arena's resident acting company, staff and board; Fichandler's sons, Hal and Mark; playwright Athol Fugard, one of last year's winners; and representatives of regional theaters from around the country. Fichandler chose to receive her award in Washington instead of New York, where the presentation traditionally takes place, so that more members of the Arena "family" could attend. Pielmeier's 'Boys' Panned

Playwright John Pielmeier appears to be a victim of Broadway's sophomore jinx. The Catholic University graduate who scored big with his first Broadway play, "Agnes of God," has struck out with his latest effort, "The Boys of Winter," which opened to underwhelming reviews Sunday.

In his review of "Boys," which focuses on seven Marines who are sent on a secret mission in South Vietnam, New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote: ". . . the play is a haphazard compilation of pulp war-literature bromides, slung together like dishrags on a limp clothesline." Marcy Granata, the production's publicist, said other reviews also were "very tough on the show." Granata said yesterday that the producers had yet to decide on the play's fate. Clowning Around

"I think Falstaff sees everyone in life as a clown, except himself," said John Neville-Andrews, artistic producer of the Folger Theatre, where "The Merry Wives of Windsor" begins previews tonight.

To illustrate the metaphor of Falstaff as ringmaster, Neville-Andrews, who is directing Shakespeare's only middle-class domestic comedy, has created a circus atmosphere -- featuring jugglers, unicyclists, tightrope walkers and even a sword swallower -- hoping to "excite, shock, tantalize and astound the audience ."

In a unique departure from previous productions of "Merry Wives," Neville-Andrews has chosen to begin the play with a scene from "Henry IV, Part One" that draws a parallel between the Falstaff of Eastcheap in the history plays and the Falstaff of "Merry Wives." The play will be presented as Falstaff's dream, with the real life trickster becoming the dupe as he slumbers.

Neville-Andrews is still debating whether to conclude the play with an epilogue -- to have Falstaff wake from his nightmare. "I think we might have to see a repent by Falstaff at the end," he speculated. Framed Actors

You won't find Jason Robards, Dustin Hoffman and Derek Jacobi currently performing on any of Washington's stages, but you can see their images beginning tomorrow at the National Press Club, where an exhibit of drawings by artist Gloria Kamen, titled "A Celebration of Washington Theater," will be on display through Dec. 28. The exhibit, which covers many of the city's theatrical productions over the last six years, features 28 panels of watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings done by Kamen for The Washington Post and Onstage magazine. For information on the press club exhibit, call 662-7500. Odds and Ends

Wordstage readers' theater will present an adaptation of Russell Baker's Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, "Growing Up," this Friday and Saturday and Dec. 13 and 14 at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington. Nine actors will play numerous characters, including three versions of Baker at different points in his life, explained director Karen Berman. For ticket information call 558-2161 . . . Ford's Theatre, the Library Theatre, the National Theatre and the Kennedy Center's Programs for Children and Youth recently joined the Washington League of Theatres, bringing the league's total to 15 . . . "Women and Water" opens Thursday at the Arena . . . "Little Me" has been extended at Ford's through Jan. 5.