- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

It’s been called one of the best-kept secrets in Washington — but in a town more famous for spilling secrets than keeping them, it’s no surprise that just about everyone who attended the 23rd annual Helen Hayes Awards on Monday night knew what it was.

The District is a great theater town.

Things weren’t always that way, noted veteran stage and screen actor Frances Sternhagen, who received the Helen Hayes Tribute, an award sponsored by local performing arts megabenefactors Jaylee and Gilbert Mead.

“We only had the National Theatre,” said Miss Sternhagen, 77, who grew up on O Street in Georgetown. “And then Helen Hayes boycotted it because it was segregated, and for a while we didn’t have anything.” (The National closed rather than integrate.)

What a difference a few decades makes. Today, the Washington area is filled with stages large and small, and nearly all were represented in some way during the evening.

Just about everyone gathering for the pre-awards patrons reception at the JW Marriott Hotel was a little star-struck, not so much with particular individuals as with the idea of theater as community.

“It’s always a thrill,” said Ana Clark Steele, a theater veteran and one of 60 judges for this year’s awards. “Being a judge was a revelation — there’s talent everywhere, from large houses to small ones.”

Still, there were plenty of stars to be struck by, including presenters Sir Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave and Kathie Lee Gifford. E. Faye Butler took a few minutes to acknowledge the shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech before presenting the first award (for outstanding supporting performer) to Jeff Dumas of “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

It was an evening that looked backward as much as forward, with the usual kudos to parents and mentors as well as those on theater’s cutting edge.

The Warner Theatre, which began life as a movie palace in 1924, seemed a perfect showplace for the occasion with its glittering chandelier and miles of gilt paint. Just as appropriate were the stylings of music meister Marvin Hamlisch, who opened the show with a medley of show tunes and ended with a chorus line of high-kicking hoofers in the best Rockettes tradition.

The big winner was “Assassins,” the Signature Theatre musical in which the audience and stage were mirror images; it picked up seven awards. The Folger Theatre’s “Measure for Measure,” featuring actors performing with puppets, received “the Helen” for outstanding resident play.

Afterward, it was back to the Marriott for more music, food and a chance to rub elbows with some of the best in the business into the wee hours.

“I couldn’t tell anybody at work I was going to stay out so late,” said one budding actress caught resting her feet in the ladies lounge. “Nobody in Washington stays out after 12 on a weeknight.”

Lisa Rauschart

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