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Here’s to Washington’s Victor Shargai: A fan, a catalyst, a mensch of the theater

Victor Shargai, chairman of TheatreWashington, chats with Scott Tomlinson, development director for Arena Stage, at a gala in 2012. (Rebecca D'Angelo/for The Washington Post)
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Every theater town should have a Victor.

Theater people in Washington’s close-knit arts community know exactly which Victor I’m talking about. The rest of you will learn by way of this article that his last name was Shargai — pronounced SHAR-guy — and it’s a shame you heard of him only by way of an epilogue.

Victor (sorry, I just can’t reduce him to a surname) died on Christmas Eve of a stroke, at the age of 83. And on Friday night, theaters all across the nation’s capital will dedicate their performances to his memory. The collective expression of love — on Valentine’s Day, no less — is as close as the region’s theater companies come to a recognition ceremony akin to Broadway’s dimming of marquees after the death of some stage personage of note.

And Victor certainly was notable. Not in the role of director or actor — though, once upon a long time ago, he tried to make it on the stage in New York, his hometown. No, Victor, who made a living as an interior decorator, was a theatrical bulwark of another vital variety: a supporter, a fan, a contributor, and a matchmaker between playmakers and patrons of the arts.

He served for a lengthy spell as chairman of TheatreWashington, the trade group created to bolster and promote the constellation of theaters, large and small, that have blossomed in and around the District. If theaters in these parts still struggle for the wider recognition they have most deservedly earned, it is not for want of Victor’s trying. Like the influence of others who communicate through deft social networking as well as more straightforward forms of advocacy, Victor inhabited an essential niche in the arts: He was the civilian who not only rallies artists by reminding them of their own irreplaceable work, but also taps on the shoulders of the moneyed class, to make sure the work can keep flowing.

I knew Victor for nearly 20 years, and almost from the moment I arrived to review plays and musicals here. He was what you might call a critic-whisperer — sometimes a welcome interlocutor, sometimes what we who have Yiddish speakers in our ancestry would call a noodge. If Dolly Gallagher Levi had a brother, he might have been Victor.

“Hi, bubby.” “Hello, darling.” “Hey, kiddo,” he’d say, squeezing my elbow whenever we met in the lobby of Studio Theatre or Arena Stage or the Atlas Performing Arts Center. He was a fixture on opening nights and ritually took a seat down front, the better for his distinctive laugh — a resonant, exuberant guffaw — to alert the actors their exertions were having their desired effect.

The knitting together of the personal and professional was immaculate. The Helen Hayes Awards, which he had a hand in establishing, gives out a prize for outstanding new theater troupe in the name of his longtime partner, John Aniello, who died in 2006. (Victor later married Craig Pascal, who survives him.) He was close friends with benefactors who put their wealth to work for the art form he loved: Jane Lang, who restored the Atlas on H Street NE; the late Jaylee Mead, who with late husband Gilbert gave their name to Arena’s handsome Southwest home, the Mead Center for American Theater.

His manner was a perfect blend of Washington and New York: schmoozy, deferential, insistent. Many people who are close to an art form maintain what they consider a healthy distance from someone in my job. Victor, though, never saw a gap he didn’t want to bridge. He would call me with praise when I liked something and mild reproof when I didn’t. (Not that he liked everything himself. I can disclose here that an ardent enthusiast in public can shut down the cheerleading pretty scathingly in private.) To his credit, he was respectful of the role of the critic and never tried to persuade me, one way or the other. Which is why we got along.

And he reserved some of his most persistent lobbying for the youngest and most fragile of theater companies: In our last email exchange, he implored me to see the work of one of the fledgling groups performing in an underserved section of the city. I don’t think he’d mind if I quoted from one of his nudges. “Dear Peter,” he wrote me last April. “How about a story about 11:00 matinees filled to the brim with students AND SENIORS. The energy permeating this Mosaic performance is electric and thrilling! It’s for ‘Native Son.’ Hopeful HUGS.”

The wished-for embrace, of course, was not intended literally for me. Victor was always reaching out to wrap his arms around life as if it were lived on a stage. The great gift he left was helping to ensure that this glorious exercise in shared humanity would outlive him.