- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2000

The performances were what stood out in local theater this year, not the plays.

Individuals made an impact more far-reaching than the works they served. (Of course, there were exceptions: "Heaven" by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, "Vigil" at the Studio Theatre and "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again" at Arena Stage, coincidentally all Canadian plays, staged by these D.C. theaters).

Many of the new plays — "In the Absence of Spring" and "Available Light" at Signature Theatre in Arlington and "Wonder of the World" by David Lindsay-Abaire at Woolly Mammoth — were either half-baked or stamina-lacking pieces that even virtuoso acting could not redeem.

Instead, we had transcendent performances by old masters — Halo Wines' deeply charming turn in "The Madwoman of Chaillot" at Olney Theatre Center for the Arts in Olney (she also directed a delectable, frothy "Tartuffe" at the same theater), Floyd King being both devilish and delicate in Studio Theatre's "Vigil" and Ted van Griethuysen stealing the show in virtually everything he was in this year at the District's Shakespeare Theatre.

No one can do world-weary and jaded like Nancy Robinette, who wrung that last twist of delicious irony out of her lines in "Wonder of the World." The play may have petered out at the end, but Miss Robinette was the real marvel as a suicidal, middle-aged woman who goes to Niagara Falls to kill herself but instead makes a pixilated connection (ultimately a life-affirming one in an oddball sort of way) with another person, a housewife on the lam from her marriage.

Across the way at Studio Theatre, another pro at putting an idiosyncratic spin on material that would be chloroform in the footlights with an actor of lesser talents, Sarah Marshall, was divine as the nutso divorcee in "Betty's Summer Vacation." Christopher Durang's comedy was one that fell apart as it went on, literally until there was nothing left to do but blow up the set, but Miss Marshall gave the hilariously inappropriate Mrs. Siezmagraff a dizzying level of mania. She was peerless playing all the parts in a sendup of Court TV, including the judge, prosecuting and defending attorneys, the defendant and the witnesses. Miss Marshall even got to slap herself in a particularly heated exchange between the defendant and her mother.

Some star bursts also came from newcomers, notably Shira Grabelsky portraying Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker" at Arena Stage as a maelstrom of untapped intelligence and foaming frustration and Greta Sanchez-Ramirez as the strong, earth-rooted storyteller in Nilo Cruz's "Two Sisters and a Piano," which heated up the Studio Theatre this fall.

A veteran and a neophyte, Sherri Edelen and Amy Goldberger respectively, teamed up to give the most haunting performances of the year, playing Siamese twins in Signature's "Side Show." Their specialness went beyond their being conjoined. They had a glow, a sheen to them, which was heightened by their heartbreaking portrayals. They sang beautifully and boldly, with Miss Goldberger's voice containing hints of country-Western brio that were a refreshing change from the Broadway belt. Both actresses were ferocious and unapologetic about their characters, tender with each other in private moments but tough in the way they faced the world.

The two were joined by Eric Jordan Young, in an impassioned performance as Jake, a compassionate stagehand, and a cast with some of the most gorgeous voices this side of Glory.

Signature scored another coup with "Floyd Collins," a plain-spoken and wrenching musical about a 1925 caving disaster. The musical essentially is a deathwatch, but an exemplary cast and a bluegrass-inflected score by Adam Guettel and Tina Landau made this a bracingly spare and exquisite experience.

The year welcomed Wallace Acton back into the local footlights after a self-imposed hiatus. He appeared not to have lost a speck of timing and style as he portrayed Richard II at the Shakespeare Theatre with the matinee-idol charisma and hauteur befitting the period in which director Gerald Freedman set the play — 1930s England, the time of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson.

Mr. Acton pulled off an astonishing resemblance to Edward: the same neat, boyish frame in splendid suits; the lofty accent and diction; the way he seemed to glide an inch or two off the ground like a hummingbird while the commoners around him plodded and lurched; and the way his crown fit his head, as if God himself had placed it there. He was every inch the king (who later abdicated) — maybe not the most effective or canny monarch, but a king by divine right nonetheless.

M. Emmet Walsh also gave a king-size performance at Arena Stage this spring with "All My Sons," by Arthur Miller. As the opportunistic businessman Joe Keller, Mr. Walsh was so richly dimensional that one felt a twinge of sympathy as Joe and his sons had the final showdown, because by this time, Joe was not so much a monster as a pitiful little man whittled down to nothing but his shabby bundle of lies.

Another stage-screen veteran, Phylicia Rashad, commanded the stage in the family dramedy "Blue," which goes to Broadway in 2001. Miss Rashad's Peggy is a diva without a microphone, a designer-clad battleship who is as quick with the devastating remarks as she is with the credit cards. She is like Blanche DuBois in her bottomless thirst for attention; like Maggie the Cat in her sexy, stalking rage; like Amanda Wingfield in her steel-magnolia grip on her husband and children.

Yet a third television star gave one of the most touching performances of the year — in "Wit" at the Kennedy Center. Judith Light was incandescent as Dr. Vivian Bearing, a brusque and demanding English professor dying of ovarian cancer. She possessed the flawless diction and booming voice of a professor who felt the world was her lecture hall. Miss Light's performance was as honed and pristine as Dr. Bearing's intellect — no waste or foolishness.

A trio of bombastic portrayals lifted the already riveting "Heaven" at Woolly Mammoth into headier realms. Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz hurled us into the action of this bitter comedy about racism with an intensely physical and pugilistic production that had, among other things, the actors kick boxing, stilt walking and street fighting. Among the dangerous, teetering performances were Rich Foucheaux's as a cop so twisted by the death of his partner than he becomes a one-man campaign to clean the streets, Mitchell Hebert's as an equal-opportunity racist and Naomi Jacobsen's as a wife caught in the cross-fire.

The opposite of heaven was a hellishly tormented and adulterous couple, played by Christopher Lane and Valerie Leonard, in Neal Bell's savage adaptation of Emile Zola's classic 19th-century novel "Therese Raquin," which heated up audiences at Olney this summer. These two generated more guilt-ridden, nasty sexual heat than a whole season of HBO's "Sex and the City" ever could hope to muster. Their portrayal of an unhealthy affair was mad and grasping, more like two people pulling each other away from the edge of a cliff than a romantic interlude.

What is there to look forward to in the new year? Gail Grate, another of Washington's most treasured actresses, returns to the local stage in Suzan Lori-Parks' "In the Blood." The playwright's disquieting, resonant take on "The Scarlet Letter" will be produced at Woolly Mammoth's new home in the Kennedy Center's American Film Institute Theater starting in January.

The Kennedy Center also will play host to another astonishing black American playwright, August Wilson, whose latest installment in his decade-by-decade saga continues in February with "King Hedley II."

Donna Migliaccio, a Washington favorite, no doubt will raise the rafters as the non-wallflowery Mama Rose in Signature's "Gypsy," which begins in January.

In March, Studio will stage Tom Stoppard's astonishingly erudite, lovely and profound play about the poet A.E. Housman, "The Invention of Love," with Mr. Van Griethuysen in the lead.

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