- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

Going to the theater in a normal year involves a search for magic, for those moments forever pressed into your brain. After the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the magic was secondary to a search for meaning, for the comfort and the privilege of sitting in the friendly dark and waiting to be moved to laughter and tears.
Theater became a balm and a touchstone. Previously, plays from ancient Greece such as the Shakespeare Theatre's take on the Oedipus trilogy or Arena Stage's female-centered updating of the Agamemnon cycle might have been seen as splendid curiosities. After September 11, they suddenly emitted more perspective than a week of CNN, telling us everything we sought to know about deep seated hostilities, the weariness of war and how we can live after witnessing unspeakable horrors.
Another effect the terrorist attacks had on theater was to instill a delicate nostalgia. Plays that once crackled with immediacy this year took on an entirely different tinge. Oh, for the luxury of fighting over a painting, as three friends did in Olney Theatre Center's razor-sharp production of Yasmina Reza's "Art." When I first saw the play two years ago, the plot seemed to be a fight to the death, with each man intent on impressing his opinion. Long-standing friendships destroyed by a painting? Well, of course, art is important. In Olney's fall production, the friendship is the thing. We needed to see the final scene with the three friends talking again and trying to patch up their relationship. Before, it seemed a bit superfluous because we knew the damage was done. At Olney, it supplied a necessary grace note.
Similarly, you felt dazzled and lucky to witness the bawdy charm of Claudia Shear's "curvy and nervy" portrayal of Mae West in "Dirty Blonde" at the Kennedy Center. Miss West was shocking, true, and sexy in a way that put the plastic-surgery-enhanced sirens of today to shame. She also never entertained the thought that she couldn't be successful, and the message of "Dirty Blonde" that you have to keep going was one we were happy to hear.
This was the year when everything turned upside-down, and the stage was no exception. A theater known for its musicals, Signature, had perfectly upstanding but not bombastic productions of "Gypsy" and "Grand Hotel." A theater not known for musicals, Studio, put on a tight and terrific ensemble production of William Finn's "A New Brain." This odd but soaring show details a middle-aged man's brush with mortality. When he sings "I Feel So Much Spring Within Me," you are left with a feeling of hope, that perhaps that budding will quicken inside of you, too.
The Kennedy Center, thought of as a place for touring companies with star power, blew us all out of the water with its UK/KC series, which started with the ebullient staging of Carlo Goldoni's "A Servant to Two Masters" by the Young Vic from London. Laughs at all cost ruled with this shameless comedy, ever lightened by Jason Watkins as the hand-walking, food-scarfing servant Truffaldino
The next offering in this British import series was just as winning, although of a much different mood. The movement-based Shared Experience Company did a version of George Eliot's "Mill on the Floss" that was so grounded in action and passion and the whirling eddy of cyclic tragedy that you were caught up in its spell from start to finish. The role of Maggie Tulliver is a demanding one, and three actresses (Pauline Turner, Jessica Lloyd and Caroline Faber) brilliantly conveyed her essence as a fiery child, a pious teen-ager and a desperate woman.
The Shakespeare Theatre had star power this season. Judith Light was colder than death in the title role of "Hedda Gabler." She didn't just command the stage, she took it hostage with her ruthless, whip-smart and blazingly cruel portrayal of the supremely bored Hedda.
If there is a man of the year beyond New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, it would be Ted van Griethuysen. In February, he was a grand and commanding King Philip II of Spain in "Don Carlos," an elegant production at the Shakespeare Theatre made even more refined by Mr. Griethuysen's rendering of Philip as a bold decision maker.
Yet it was his portrayal of poet and classics scholar A.E. Housman in Studio Theatre's stupendous "The Invention of Love" that broke your heart. The utter simplicity of his acting, of his embodiment of this complex man, was enough to render you in permanent awe, but then he spoke the intricate words of Tom Stoppard's play, and you were transformed.
The theater had no moments more beautiful this year, or perhaps any other year, than when Mr. Van Griethuysen was sitting in his professorial tweeds on a stone bench and uttering, "I would have died for you. Mo, if I had the chance." Those moments remain fixed, no matter what.

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