The sentiments were high-flown. The thank-yous were predictably profuse. And the anecdotes tended, as they often do, to be long and self-serving. In the successive waves of inflated, if heartfelt, rhetoric that broke over the National Theatre in the course of the first annual Helen Hayes Awards last Monday, you could easily have missed the most significant statement of the evening.

Joy Zinoman, artistic director of the Studio Theatre, and Howard Shalwitz, aristic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, had just taken to the stage to announce the outstanding actor in a touring production. Zinoman, who moves with the distinctive limpness of a rag doll in a maelstrom, drifted up to the microphone and said by way of introduction, "We're the locals."

There had been a lot of show business glitter up to then, and a lot was still forthcoming. A year ago, when the Helen Hayes Awards were taking shape as Washington's answer to the Tonys, two opposing approaches were hotly debated. Start small and grow, said some. No, come on with a big splash, said others. The splashmakers had not only prevailed, but by Monday night they had corralled enough stars so that autograph hounds felt obliged to take up watch under the National Theatre marquee.

It wasn't just the presence of Helen Hayes herself, who, by lending her name to the awards, instantly gave them both a legitimacy and a newsworthiness that extends beyond the District line. There was Washington newcomer Lynda Carter ("Wonder Woman"), gushing about how much she feels a part of the city, although her manner and garb screamed pure Hollywood. Robert Foxworth ("Falcon Crest"), Bruce Weitz ("Hill Street Blues") and Karen Allen ("Raiders of the Lost Ark") showed up. So did George Grizzard, James MacArthur, Maurice Hines and Jose Ferrer, who, seizing the occasion to sing Hayes' praises, ended up largely trilling his own. Presiding over them all was master of ceremonies Robert Prosky, in the full flush of motion picture and television success, but no less congenial for that.

Some had started out here, others had passed through on the way to fame. The point is they had all been drafted to do the Oscars show -- or The Oscars Go to Washington. Their unspoken message to the huddled actors in the hall was "You, too, can be a star." That wasn't what they were saying, of course. What they were saying was that Washington is coming of age artistically and that theater here is as important as it is elsewhere. But in awards ceremonies, at least, actions (and dress) do have a way of speaking louder than words. At times, the noblesse was positively obliging.

For me, Zinoman's remark pulled it all back into focus. The Helen Hayes Awards are about the locals. It is Washington theater taking stock of itself, proudly and unapologetically standing on its own feet, beholden neither to Broadway nor to Hollywood. The reason that the city deserves an annual awards ceremony is not that Los Angeles, New York and Chicago already have theirs and we'd better catch up quick if we don't want to look like a country cousin. It's that the work itself merits recognition.

The real excitement, in fact, had nothing to do with the stars in attendance and the glamor they presumably were imparting to the proceedings. It came from seeing:

* Tami Tappan, suspended somewhere between tears and giddy joy, receiving the award for outstanding supporting actress (for "Lydie Breeze" at the New Playwrights' Theatre) and remembering in the flood of youthful emotions to thank her family for driving her to rehearsals.

* A modest Steven Dawn, charmingly fighting his astonished delight at being named outstanding supporting actor (also for "Lydie Breeze").

* Arena Stage's Zelda Fichandler, embracing Weitz and Prosky before accepting from them the Helen Hayes for best resident production ("Cloud Nine"). Arena, after all, figured critically in both those actors' careers, and the embrace was not inspired by the momentary triumph but by longstanding friendship and mutual respect.

* The quietly loving look on the face of Cody Pfanstiehl, ushering his wife Margaret Rockwell out onto the stage, then stepping back into the shadows while she was applauded for her work in setting up an audio system that describes stage action to spectators who are visually impaired, as she is.

At such moments, you had a palpable sense of a Washington theater community -- peers acknowledging peers. And it was lovely.

What worked less well were the categories devoted to touring performers and productions. It may be debated whether Derek Jacobi needs yet another award for his soaring interpretation of Cyrano, but if he does, is it Washington's duty to give it to him? In the true spirit of anticlimax, none of the winners (Jacobi, "Torch Song Trilogy's" Estelle Getty and "Cats' " Diane Fratantoni) was on hand to collect the award, anyway.

Acknowledging the best touring show of the season (it went to the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Cyrano de Bergerac") is not without justification, although touring shows are dwindling with each passing season and are now far outnumbered by local productions. But is it really so important to pronounce on the apparent merits of out-of-town players? Or is it merely our inferiority complex showing -- a way of saying we have a patch on the big time, too?

There is something essentially arbitrary about arts awards to begin with, if we truly believe that we are separating the wheat from the chaff, the inspired from the merely gifted. To say that Franc,ois de la Giroday gave a "better" performance in "Man and Superman" than Stanley Anderson did in "Lydie Breeze," or that Halo Wines "beat" Marcia Gay Harden, is to set up a false premise.

Actors are not engaged in foot races, and they do not heave over the finish line, two steps ahead of the nearest competition. Talent enters into it. But can you measure talent? The seven Helen Hayes judges may have thought they did. But what really influences the votes, I suspect, is an actor's impact in a particular role and the vividness of the memories he leaves once the curtain falls. The residue of a performance, if you will, is being judged, its persistence in the mind's eye.

The aptness of a role is also a significant factor, and it could be argued that the miscast actor is obliged to do far more "acting" than the one who fits his part like a glove -- although the perfect fit gets the cheers. A director can make a play look good, but by the same token a good play can make a good director look even better. And it's hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins.

You see how confusing it can get. It makes far more sense to look upon the Helen Hayes Awards simply as a means of telling certain actors and directors, designers and theaters that they have enriched our lives, that their work is not incidental to our well-being and that Washington is a better place for their presence. All else is presumption.

In that respect, the show business trappings Monday night were as specious as they were misleading. They implied a world of fabled glamor and magic, populated by actors who have "blazed" to success, acquiring along the way "distinguished colleagues" whose names are "synonymous with achievement." If such a world exists, it is not ours. Nor should the Helen Hayes Awards be drawn into it.

The ceremony is long overdue. But it belongs to "the locals."