GALA, Women’s Voices Festival Win Big at Helen Hayes Awards

It looked as if the Helen Hayes Awards, presented by Theatre Washington, managed to return to their roots this year at the annual celebration and trophy giveaways, held at the Lincoln Theatre May 23.

The roots, to my mind, are what separate the awards from their New York counterparts the Tonys, which are nationally televised but locally vague, more an extended ad for Broadway than anything else.

The Helen Hayes Awards, in contrast, have from the beginning, quite a number of years ago, been a celebration of the Washington theater community (which extends to our neighboring states) in all of its aspects — big and little, serious and entertaining, rich or struggling, companies with theaters and those without them.

They have always centered around people: the artists, actors, directors and gifted pros who make magic happen backstage and out front, and also the audience. There’s always been a celebratory, even party-like atmosphere to these things, named after America’s First Lady of Theater and often presided over by her son, the late James MacArthur. There was time for solemnity and eloquence, broad humor, songs and thank-you-mom-and-dad, not to mention the presence of legends like Angela Lansbury and Jason Robards and locals who made good like Robert Prosky.

Mostly, there was a lot of yelling, whistling, cheering, and screams from the contingents that had their work nominated. Winning wasn’t always everything, but when it occurred for the smaller troupes, it was really something. Being there always renewed my interest in and enjoyment of the Washington theater community (if such renewal were needed), of which I am part as critic and chronicler.

Things stick in your mind. I remember when actor Ed Gero, who was nominated this year for his portrayal of Antonin Scalia, won his first Helen Hayes Award for portraying John of Gaunt in “Richard II.” He acknowledged the passing of his father that year: “This is for Sal of New Jersey,” he said.

Last year, they kind of muffed it when, in the wake of deciding to double the number of awards and dividing them into Helens and Hayeses — basically a matter of size and membership in Actors’ Equity — they had a less-than-two-hour show that resembled a track meet and resulted in confusion.

This year, things went back to more or less normal; that is, the members of the cast and team of Constellation Theatre’s “Avenue Q,” an adult puppet musical, happily screamed their heads off throughout the night after all but sweeping the Helen musical awards.

“Yerma,” the GALA Hispanic production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play, took many of the drama awards, including best play, in the Helen group, in what seemed like a lifetime achievement award for the long-lived group, headed and founded by Hugo Medrano and his wife Rebecca Read Medrano. The Medranos and GALA have over many years given us the opportunity to see plays by Lorca, by contemporary Hispanic playwrights and from the classic age of Spanish theater (giving the lie to the ugly Trump-eted clichés about Hispanic, Latino and Spanish culture).

It was also a good night for the successful and risky Women’s Voices Theater Festival of last fall, in which pretty much the entire Washington theater community staged world premieres of plays by female playwrights, one of which was a big winner in the Hayes arena. That would be the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Yaël Farber’s take on “Salome,” which won several awards.

If you looked through the Helen musical results, you could see the work of two rising young directors: Matthew Gardiner at Signature (“West Side Story”) and Alan Paul at the Shakespeare Theatre (“Kiss Me Kate” and “Man of La Mancha”).

The wonderful E. Faye Butler and actor Lawrence Redmond — with a fit-for-the-theater stentorious voice — hosted the evening, which moved both briskly but patiently over two hours or so. Theatre Washington head Amy Austin talked eloquently about the mystical relationship between actors on stage and the audience.

And on they went to the 9:30 Club for the year’s biggest cast party.

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