Zelda Fichandler is a sort of local hero. She is as responsible as anyone for the establishment of the city's reputation as a destination for drama. Fifty-five years ago, Fichandler was among a trio of visionaries who turned a movie theater, the Hippodrome, into a legitimate playhouse, Arena Stage.
The ingenuity of Fichandler and her partners, Edward Mangum and her husband, Thomas C. Fichandler, placed Washington at the forefront of a regional theater movement that would become a dominant force in shaping American drama for the rest of the century.
Arena Stage had long since moved out of the Hippodrome, at Ninth Street and New York Avenue NW, and into its present headquarters, at Sixth Street and Maine Avenue SW, when Fichandler left her perch as the company's producing director after the 1990-91 season. Now, she's been invited back into her longtime home, where she will direct a production of Clifford Odets's Depression play "Awake and Sing!"
It's an apt moment for Fichandler, now in her early eighties and director of New York University's graduate acting program, to make her return. Arena is on the brink of another challenging metamorphosis, a $100 million makeover that will add a third stage, for new plays, and give the fraying campus a resplendent new architectural sheen.
Her last directorial work at Arena came in 1997 with a well-received staging of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," a production that reflected one of Fichandler's abiding loves, Russian literature. In her tenure leading Arena, the company won the first Tony Award presented to a regional theater, and, with "The Great White Hope," became the first to send a play to Broadway. Over the years, too, Fichandler showed herself to be a director of both orthodox and exotic tastes, staging an astonishing array of works, from Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and Chekhov's "Three Sisters" to "The Ascent of Mount Fuji" by Chingiz Aitmatov and Kaltai Mukhamedzhanov.
Debuted in New York by the renowned Group Theatre in 1935, "Awake and Sing!" is a signature work of Odets, a firebrand artist from an activist period for drama. "There is hardly another play of the '30s," wrote Harold Clurman, co-founder of the Group Theatre, "which so directly communicates the 'smell' of New York in the first years of the Depression." Getting a whiff of an old pro's new handiwork is sure to be one of the more intriguing experiences of the season.