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Take a breath, Helen Hayes

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I feel hung over, and I didn’t even go to the party.

49 awards in 70 minutes: that was the Helen Hayes Awards last night. With presenters rapidly reading nominees’ names but not the titles of the shows, it felt like a rundown. Or a drive-by.

As each winner left the Lincoln Theatre stage I made note of the times. 8:08. 8:09. 8:10. 8:12, as Tovah Feldshuh won for “Golda’s Balcony” at Theater J – the role earned her a Tony Award nomination on Broadway in 2004 – and evoked the great Ruth Gordon as she said, “I find this very encouraging.” (Gordon was 72 when she won an Oscar for “Rosemary’s Baby” and said in her thank you, “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is.”)

Back to the clock: 8:12 (still). 8:14, with deaf actress Miranda Medugno, who played Helen Keller in WSC Avant Bard’s “Visible Language,” accepting in American Sign Language as an interpreter spoke into the microphone. 8:15, with Erin Weaver already winning her second award – first as supporting actress in Arena Stage’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” then as supporting actress in Round House Theatre’s musical “Ordinary Days” – and comically dashing off stage left.

A minute later, Matthew A. Anderson, a supporting actor winner for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Ford’s Theatre, acknowledged the whoops and giggles from the crowd and the insane racing to the stage as he cracked, “I’ve always wanted to be on ‘The Price Is Right.’”

To quote Cinderella from “Into the Woods,” “What was that?”

And to borrow from the Prince’s reply: charming – at least to watch how the go-with-the-flow theater people took direction, immediately adapted to the pace, and hustled with high spirits through their fleeting moments in the sun.

But also insincere.

Not that anyone needs to revive the sluggish aimlessness that used to bog down an often generic prize-giving night. But has the awards ceremony become the polite thing that, according to good manners, still must be observed before the party? Are the awards now merely the undercard for the main event? (Has it been that way for years?) The party venue wasn’t ready for the ceremony to be over so fast; people had to wait on the sidewalk for the doors to open at the Howard Theatre.

Or, in a highly transitional year that doubled the award haul by controversially splitting D.C.’s large theatrical output into two camps – “Helen” for shows with mostly non-Equity casts, and “Hayes” for majority Equity productions – was the stampede somehow designed to keep people from dwelling on the new reality? Was this a “duck and cover” night?

If so, it didn’t need to be. It feels right that Theatre Washington isn’t splitting the event, the standard in Chicago for years with its separate Equity and non-Equity Jeff Awards. The “Helen” designation doesn’t need to be regarded as junior, as some fear; I saw lots of terrific work in that classification last year, and if it takes a few seasons for certain categories to feel really flush, that seems natural enough. There is more consistency, logic and deliberation to the revised judging system than there has been for years. This is progress to stand up for.

It matters because once a year the awards are the face of Washington theater. Pause and consider what that should look like; you can make the case that this expanded field better reflects the range of what’s happening in a city that strives for a reputation as one of the very best theater destinations in the country. But that also means taking prizes seriously, truly marking the achievements and not being content as a giddy theater prom mainly juiced for the after-party. With luck, last night’s blitz was a one-off as HHA figures out how to fit it all in.

But that’s just a quick thought. Gotta run – thanks-and-goodnight!

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