Susan Hilferty, accepting her Obie for Sustained Excellence in Costume Design, told this story to salute "the community of jewelers" before her on Monday night, filling Webster Hall for the 2000 Village Voice Obie Awards ceremony--recipients, presenters, believers.
Since 1956, when Jerry Tallmer invented the word, the Obie Awards have been passed out for outstanding achievement in theater. Tallmer was a Village Voice employee at the time, so the awards have stayed pretty much on V.V. turf, but not exclusively. This year's guest judges who joined the paper's regular critics--Michael Feingold, Alisa Solomon, James Hannaham, and Brian Parks--included director Jo Bonney, playwright (and "jeweler") Mac Wellman, and performance artist Holly Hughes.
The Obies are the only awards that pointedly eschew Broadway in favor of Off-Broadway and even deepest, darkest Off-Off Broadway, singling out achievements worthy of honor. In fact, Feingold went out of his way to justify the inclusion of producer David Merrick's name in this year's necrology. The tyrannical Broadway titan, according to Feingold, gave the kind of performances off-stage "that created the need for Off-Broadway."
But it was the performances on stage that commanded the attention of the assemblage.
Stage veteran Eileen Heckart got the only standing ovation of the evening when her name was called out by her Up the Down Staircase co-star, Frances Sternhagen. Heckart was honored for her depiction of the senile art gallery owner in The Waverly Gallery. (That performance, at the Promenade Theatre--along with Heckart's stage career, to hear her tell it--will come to an end May 28.) She has, counting the honorary Tony she is to receive, racked up seven awards with this portrayal.
The nine-person cast of Jitney rose as one--as they did the night before at the Drama Desk Awards--to accept individual citations for outstanding ensemble performance. Their director, Marion McClinton, also got a nod for his work, but wasn't present. (He was in Boston, readying the next August Wilson opus, King Hedley II, for New York.) Further echoing the Drama Desk was the Obie to David Gallo for the Jitney set, as well as for Manhattan Theatre Club's The Wild Party. His Obie was for Sustained Excellence in Set Design, and Gallo thought that phrase rather daunting.
The Voice choice for playwriting went not to Wilson for Jitney but--surprise, surprise--to deceased playwright Harley Granville Barker for Waste, which only this season got a belated New York production via Theatre for a New Audience. TNA's artistic director, Jeffrey Horowitz--born the year Barker died, 1946--accepted the prize.