A hardy band of theater lovers who stage their plays in the middle of the woods at a rustic, open-air Maryland amphitheater dominated the 23rd annual NVTA One-Act Play Festival awards.

Accokeek's Hard Bargain Players took several top honors at Sunday night's ceremony, including best overall production for "Gone." NVTA was formerly known as the Northern Virginia Theatre Alliance.

In its second year of competition, the Maryland theater group scored with the original play by Bob Bartlett, edging out well-established troupes that have traditionally prevailed in the major award categories at the festival, held each June in Reston.

Herndon's Elden Street Players, the Reston Community Players and the Little Theatre of Alexandria, which frequently take home trophies in regional theater competitions, were denied awards.

Hard Bargain Players won four of 10 award categories. No other company earned more than one prize.

Bartlett's play, "Gone," which he also directed, was produced by Suzanne Fehl. It is a whimsical look at three youngsters coming to grips with the death of their father. Searching for their dog in a peculiar ravine, the siblings are helped by a dreamy, philosophical friend.

Bartlett made his way to the podium three times in a row at the Reston Community Center's CenterStage theater, accepting awards for best production of an original play, best director and best overall production.

"I write every day," he said. "It's sort of how I get by. But I wanted to write a play about leukemia, that wasn't about leukemia, for my brother. And I think we succeeded in bringing some joy to a pretty sad thing."

Earlier, the four cast members of "Gone" -- Cassie Lee, Bruce Ward, Matthew Jordan and Randy Tusing -- were cited by the judges for a discretionary award for best ensemble.

"Once in a great while, a cast comes along that's so perfectly, evenly matched that to separate the actors into categories and judge them as individual entities would not only be impossible, but wrong," said judge Donna Migliaccio, a Helen Hayes Award winner as a performer and co-founder of Arlington's Signature Theatre. "It was the incredible sense of ensemble that they brought to the stage which created something extraordinary."

Bartlett noted that actors performing on the stage at remote Hard Bargain Farm do so outdoors, often in less-than-ideal weather.

"The secret is assembling a cast that doesn't mind rehearsing in the rain and the heat and with all the bugs," he said.

In other top awards, Sally Zatkoff was named best actress for her role in "Sins of the Fathers," an original drama by Deb Crawford, produced by Prince William Little Theatre. Darius Suziedelis won best actor for "Piano Man," an original drama by Audrey Cefaly of Rockville Little Theatre.

Crawford was the busiest person at the festival. She wrote, produced and handled lighting for two plays -- "Cutting in Line," a comedy staged by Castaways Repertory Theatre of Woodbridge and "Sins of the Fathers." She also acted in, produced and did lighting for Katy Helper's original drama, "Visible Traces," for Fauquier Community Theatre of Warrenton. And she was a stagehand for the Woodbridge theater's production of "Lone Star."

Tom Ziemba won a best supporting actor award for his role in "Lone Star," and Mona Kay Helper won best supporting actress for "Ripe Conditions," a comedy presented by Fauquier Community Theatre.

Of 13 plays presented at the festival, seven were original works from local playwrights, and many had warnings about mature subject matter and language.

"These groups see the festival as a chance to do some edgier shows than usual," said festival producer Janice Dionne. "Often, they cannot do them in the county facilities they use, or they shy away from them because their audiences don't appreciate this kind of work. Of course, they might be looking for the types of shows that have won here in the past, and the judges tend to like the edgier plays over the standard comedies, for some reason."

Participating were Fauquier Community Theatre, Reston Community Players, Castaways Repertory Theatre, Tapestry Theatre Company, Hard Bargain Players, Pied Piper Theatre, Saint Mark's Players, Rockville Little Theatre, Elden Street Players, Little Theatre of Alexandria and Prince William Little Theatre.

The judges were Migliaccio; film and stage actor Ralph H. Cosham; and Buzz Mauro, actor and co-founder of the Theatre Lab, the area's largest theatrical training center.

NVTA, founded in 1980 to support local theater, includes 31 theater companies in Virginia, Maryland and the District.

The festival winners:

Best actress

Sally Zatkoff, "Sins of the Fathers," Prince William Little Theatre

Best actor

Darius Suziedelis, "Piano Man," Rockville Little Theatre

Best supporting actress

Mona Kay Helper, "Ripe Conditions," Fauquier Community Theatre

Best supporting actor

Tom Ziemba, "Lone Star," Castaways Repertory Theatre, Woodbridge

Best director

Bob Bartlett, "Gone," Hard Bargain Players, Accokeek

Best production of an original play

"Gone," Hard Bargain Players, Accokeek

Best overall production

"Gone," Hard Bargain Players, Accokeek

Judges' discretionary award -- best technical aspects

"The Trojan Women," Tapestry Theatre Company, Alexandria

Judges' discretionary award -- best ensemble

"Gone," Hard Bargain Players, Accokeek

Judges' discretionary award -- combat choreography

"Sorry, Shakespeare," Center for the Arts, Pied Piper Theatre, Manassas

A production of "Gone" by Accokeek's Hard Bargain Players netted an ensemble award at the 23rd annual NVTA One-Act Play Festival for cast members including Cassie Lee, left, and Bruce Ward, center, shown above in an earlier performance with Jason Myles. The play was the night's big winner, taking home four awards.