Tricia McCawley in Of a Sunday Morning(Photo courtesy Charter Theatre)
Tricia McCawley in Of a Sunday Morning
(Photo courtesy Charter Theatre)
It's the biggest night of the year for Washington's theater community as it acknowledges and rewards the finest work on area stages. Theater people, press, and the public will get together for the 21st annual Helen Hayes Awards show, a gala celebration on Monday, May 9 at the Warner Theatre. 65 Hayes-eligible area theater companies presented a total of 383 productions in 2004. That breaks down to 7,582 performances played to 2,133,731 audience members, making the nation's capital the second most active theater town in the country. The award winners for the best of that work will come from 130 nominees in 23 categories.

The "Helen Hayes Tribute" will be presented to legendary composer Jerry Herman, creator of some of the greatest musicals of all time, including Hello, Dolly!, Mame, La Cage aux Folles, and others. Joy Zinoman, Studio Theatre's founder and artistic director, will be honored for her work at the 14th Street venue that has sparked a cultural renaissance in a formerly economically depressed area.

Vanessa Redgrave sweeps into town later in the month, direct from London's Albery Theatre as the Kennedy Center stages the Royal Shakespeare Company's spring production of Euripides's Hecuba at the Eisenhower Theater, May 21 to June 12. Redgrave makes her long-awaited Washington debut in the intense role that has been earning her solid reviews in the London press. The winner of an Emmy, Olivier, Oscar, and the Tony Award, Redgrave is back with the company that made her a Shakespearean star to portray long-suffering Queen Hecuba of Troy, who loses family and throne and becomes a prisoner of war in Athens. The play explores how the victorious deal with the vanquished in war and what happens to people when they lose all hope. This adaptation by Tony Harrison runs about two hours without intermission.

Two of the major theater companies are turning to classic works to end their seasons. Signature Theatre stages one of Stephen Sondheim's most challenging musicals, Pacific Overtures, May 17 to July 3. Fortunately, Signature has Eric Schaeffer, who has earned a national reputation as one of the best interpreters of Sondheim's work, directing. Pacific Overtures features Kabuki-style music as it tells the story of Japan's conflict between tradition and opening up to the west in the 1850s. Arena Stage is turning to one of Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize winners, Anna Christie, directed by Molly Smith. Anna Christie is the moving story of a Swedish barge captain and his estranged daughter. It will run May 6 to June 19 in the Kreeger, as August Wilson's The Piano Lesson continues its run to May 15 in the Fichandler.

There is quite a bit of new material on the boards this month. Charter Theatre wraps up its season with the debut of Of a Sunday Morning, a drama written by local playwright and Charter Theatre dramaturge, Richard Washer. Director Keith Bridges says Of a Sunday Morning is set "in the near future" as the government uses a combination of religion and technology to control the population. When a young woman is caught expressing thoughts outside acceptable orthodoxy, she is branded a terrorist and detained for interrogation.

"The play makes a statement that dramatically deals with the balance between fear and safety, freedom and fear," Bridges said. "The play presents a society where the safety of everyone is more important than any individual's freedom, so it has contemporary resonance. It's a serious play, although it's surprising to me as we rehearse how many absurdly funny moments are also in it." Of a Sunday Morning stars Helen Hayes Award winner Lee Mikeska Gardner and also features Tricia McCauley as "The Archive," an omnipresent computer program that fosters a heightened sense of fear and asserts religious ideals. The play runs May 13 through June 5 at the National Conservatory of the Dramatic Arts.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company finally has its own home after 25 years in borrowed spaces. Their brand new, 265-seat theater located at 641 D Street, NW will be inaugurated May 10 with the world premiere of a dark comedy from Mickey Birnbaum called Big Death & Little Death. Artistic director Howard Shalwitz, who is directing, says it is a play he's been saving for the new theatre. "It's incredibly funny, unexpectedly tender, and quite relevant to our current American situation," he said. "What's surprising about Mickey's play is that the subject matter is drenched in death...but because the story is told through the eyes of young people with their longing for love and sex and acceptance, it has this charming and very redemptive quality." Big Death & Little Death will run through June 12.

African Continuum Theatre Company will produce its first show in its new home, the recently restored Atlas Performing Arts Center, located in what used to be an abandoned movie theater at 1333 H Street, NE. They're doing actor/writer Charlayne Woodard's play, Pretty Fire, a five-vignette piece that delves into Woodard's childhood in Albany, New York during the early 1960s. Erika Rose plays all the parts, including Woodard's sisters, parents, and grandparents, as seen through the character of Charlayne.

Theater J. has the area premiere of Kate Fodor's Hannah and Martin, in which political theorist and writer Hannah Arendt confronts charges that philosopher Martin Heidegger, her lover and mentor, is a Nazi sympathizer. The play was an award-winning hit during its Chicago run, exploring questions of forgiveness, academic independence, and the limits of loyalty. Hannah and Martin runs May 4 to June 5.

Catalyst Theatre Company has turned Macbeth into an ensemble piece stressing the movement-based style of Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski. Directed by Kathleen Akerley, Shkspr Prjct is advertised as "a bold, theatrical reinvention...developed through an intensely collaborative rehearsal process...a unique journey through a classic story." Shkspr Prjct runs May 5 to June 11 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street, SE.

Studio Theatre is giving area audiences their first look at Take Me Out, Richard Greenberg's Tony Award-winning play about major league baseball and the outing of a gay player. Take Me Out runs May 18 to June 26 in Studio's Mead Theatre. Studio is also presenting Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, the David Mamet-directed show featuring the Obie Award-winning sleight-of-hand artist May 4 to May 22 in the new Metheny Theatre.

There are some interesting internationally flavored productions in May. Theater Alliance will stage the American premiere of Headsman's Holiday by Hungarian playwright Kornel Hamvai, which the Budapest Sun newspaper called, "One of the most successful Hungarian dramas of recent years," May 26 through June 26. Teatro de la Luna has the American premiere of Continente Viril (Virile Continent) by Argentinean playwright Alejandro Acobino, May 20 through June 18. This broad satire combines "biting attacks on society's love of order with mankind's current war against nature" and it will be performed in Spanish with simultaneous English translation, via headsets. And Gala Hispanic Theatre stages Real Women Have Curves by Josefina López. The comedy about five Latinas toiling in a sweatshop will be performed in English, May 5 to 29, at the Tivoli Theatre.

Scena Theatre takes a journey to the ancient world with what they're calling "a modern sensibility," in The Classics Made Easy Trilogy, by Scena Artistic Director Robert McNamara. "I Cyclops" is a comic retelling of Homer's The Odyssey, but from the point of view of the monster Polyphemus. "Thersites" has fun with Homer's Iliad, and "Gladiator" has an anonymous gladiator "meditating upon his fate prior to greeting his fans in the Coliseum." The "Classics Made Easy Trilogy" runs in rotating repertory May 1 through June 3 at the Warehouse Theater.

Taking a journey into delicious weirdness, the enterprising new Accokeek Creek Theatre Company presents the area premiere of the Mindy Kaling/Brenda Withers comedy Matt & Ben. Directed by Bob Bartlett, Matt & Ben offers a satirical view of Matt Damon and Ben Afleck "before J-Lo, before Gwyneth, before Project Greenlight, before Oscar, before anyone actually gave a damn." Matt & Ben took the prize for "Best Overall Production" during its sold-out run at the New York International Fringe Festival. Bartlett's own short play, xphiles unrequited, shares the bill, as two homeless men re-imagine their lives in the context of the long-running television show, The X-Files. Matt & Ben is at DC Arts Center May 12 through 4.

Keegan Theatre mounts Warren Leight's 1999 Tony Award-winning play, Side Man, May 5 through June 5 at Church Street Theater. Elsewhere around town, several productions will conclude lengthy runs. The Shakespeare Theatre has The Tempest and Folger Theatre continues The Clandestine Marriage, both through May 22. Mamma Mia! returns to the National Theatre with the music of Abba, May 17 to July 2, and Olney Theater Center presents a rare professional theater production of that high school and community theatre staple, Lend Me a Tenor, May 11 to June 12.