- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Some of the theater world's brightest stars were on hand to celebrate the 18th annual Helen Hayes Awards at the Kennedy Center Monday night. Although actress Lynn Redgrave slipped out immediately after the lengthy program in the Concert Hall, S. Epatha Merkerson, the event's mistress of ceremonies, stayed on to congratulate the winners and nominees at the huge cast party afterward in the Atrium.

"It feels like home to be back," Miss Merkerson said. "You can get a little complacent on TV. In theater, you have to go for it. When you start in the theater, you heart tends to stay there."

Comedian Pat Carroll, the 54-year show-biz veteran who hosted the Hayes Awards from 1986 to 1996, advised aspiring young actors to begin their careers in the District rather than going immediately to New York City to pursue their dreams.

"Head you to Washington for the opportunity to work and work with pride," she said. "It's better to be in a place where you can work and learn your craft."

Michael Rupert, who won a Tony Award in 1988 for his performance in Bob Fosse's revival of "Sweet Charity," pointed out that there is an "enormous" opportunity to be cast in an ever-burgeoning number of local theater productions here. (Mr. Rupert moved to the Washington area two years ago to write, direct and act, most recently in "A New Brain" at the Studio Theatre.)

The high-spirited evening began in the South Gallery with cocktails and a black-tie dinner for the nominees and about 700 well-heeled performing-arts supporters, many of whom had personal theater ties of their own.

Alma Powell, wife of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, reported that her daughter Linda Powell was appearing in the dual roles of Circe and Penelope in Derek Walcott's Off-Broadway production of "The Odyssey." Mrs. Powell also noted that her own stage training had served her well since her theater-major days at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., "a thousand years ago."

"Acting helps everyone who has a role to play in public," she said as photographers and a constant stream of well-wishers crowded 'round.

Margaret Bush no doubt would agree. The sister-in-law of President Bush (she is the wife of his brother Marvin) took a bow like a pro when Hayes Awards major-domo Victor Shargai introduced her to the crowd before the main course was served as an "actress looking for work."

"It's true. I am looking for work," the glamorous redhead said with a laugh after noting that her last few roles have been in "Auntie Mame" and "On Golden Pond" for community theaters in Alexandria.

There was planty of time at the cast party later for additional food and drink, plus music, dancing and an ongoing fashion show.

Kenny Leon, director of "Blues in the Night" at the Arena Stage (which won the Outstanding Resident Musical award), said he wore Air Jordan sneakers with his suit to remind him to stay grounded and be mindful of the theater world's democratic traditions. "No matter what awards are bestowed upon you," he said, "you are just like everyone else."

Except maybe the reigning stars of the moment, who could be forgiven if they celebrated harder than anyone else Brad Oscar, for instance, who is playing the lead role of Max Bialystock in "The Producers," Broadway's No. 1 hit.

"In so many ways, this is fantasy land," he said. "Fantasy and reality converge in a way a young actor dreams of."

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