- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

Arena Stage's 50th-anniversary gala Saturday night was a bash in the grand manner: vibrant in talk and decor, and top-heavy in names with ticket prices to match.

More than 600 patrons paid $500 and $1,000 each for a seven-hour-plus tribute to the institution's past, present and presumed future accomplishments. The evening was definitely a "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (Arena seasons 1964-65, 1975-76 and 1994-95).

The gala had a 5:30 p.m. reception, a 6 p.m. dinner under a rainbow-colored tent filled with twirling placard photos of past productions and an 8 p.m. viewing of Arena's production of Howard Sackler's landmark play, "The Great White Hope." This was the play that first put the theater on the national map.

Dessert and dancing afterward went on until the wee hours, with police cars on prowl, apparently to check out the noise.

Chief among "Guys and Dolls" (1999-2000 season) was founding "'Night Mother" (1985-86) and former artistic director Zelda Fichandler, now chairwoman of the graduate acting department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She spoke "Candide"-ly (1982-83), reminding Arena supporters that "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a universe to raise a theater" and that "Art is long, and the box office is short."

But not this night. "The older Arena Stage gets, the better it gets," said Franklin Raines, event co-chairman along with wife, Wendy Raines, Arena's new board president. He called the $1 million dollar gross "the most ever raised by a local producing theater in a single night."

"Risk sweetens everything," said an upbeat Molly Smith, "The Firebrand" (1950-51) artistic director who piloted the current version of "The Great White Hope," a sprawling searing play operatic in scope based loosely on the life of black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and his white mistress. The play debuted at Arena in 1967 before going onto Broadway regional theater's first such move.

"You know when it opened, it was so long. But it didn't matter because everybody seemed to like it," said playwright Sackler's widow, Lynn, visiting from New York with her children.

Mrs. Fichandler remarked with a touch of wry: "Local reviews noted our excesses. The national press identified it as a major success after 18 years and 200 productions."

"A hard act to follow" in the opinion of former National Portrait Gallery Director Alan Fern, who saw the original, as did Arena Life Trustee Marcus Cohn, remembering "the excitement and the vibration."

"I feel it tonight," Mr. Cohn said. "No one will be able to describe it. It catches me deep down."

Ms. Smith's predecessor, Douglas Wager, making his first visit to Washington since moving to Hollywood, reminded the audience of Arena's legacy on the West Coast. He has been tapped by a film producer, who was a past Arena intern, to do a movie version of "Expecting Isabel," which had its world premiere under his direction at Arena two years ago. (His favorite directorial job, he said, was "Long Day's Journey" in 1994-95.)

Mr. Wager also is scheduled to direct "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" at Shakespeare Theatre here, for which the curtain rises at the end of March.

Dancer-actor Maurice Hines, an alumnus of "Guys and Dolls," enthused how much the theater had "changed my life." His projects include directing a hip-hop version of "Alice in Wonderland" (the original was staged by Arena in its 1950-51 season) with comedian Sinbad to be called "Yo Alice" and "The Ella Fitzgerald Story." The latter is due at Arena in 20002.

Notable no-shows of the night included Jane Alexander and James Earl Jones, stars of the original show. "Mr. Jones might have showed if Bell Atlantic instead of AT&T; had been a prime sponsor of tonight's production," one wag observed. District Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who remembered seeing the 1970 movie version, made it as did Washington Ballet's Septime Webre, Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small and Corcoran head David Levy.

The week's calendar in "Our Town" (1952-53) is bursting with theatrical openings. Production co-sponsors Gilbert and Jaylee Mead, arts patrons extraordinaire, will have seen four plays in seven days.

For the estimated 50 million people who have seen Arena's 500 productions through the years, it's "Play On" the title of Arena's forthcoming homage to Washington native Duke Ellington.

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