Theater Hall of Fame honors August Wilson, seven others

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NEW YORK -- To open the 36th annual induction ceremonies of the Theater Hall of Fame, emcee Phylicia Rashad bent over the podium and said, prayerfully, "This is not an awards night, thank you Lord. We don't need another one of those."

Brad Barket, Getty Images
In December 2004, playwright August Wilson was photographed with his daugther, Sakina Ansari, left, and his wife, Constanza Romero, at the Broadway opening of "Gem of the Ocean."
Click photo for larger image.

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To read more about the post-induction party, go to Rawson's Onstage Journal.


It was clear what she meant. Election to the Hall is an honor, bringing with it a brass medallion and the new member's name in raised gold letters on the wall of the rotunda at Broadway's Gershwin Theater. But it is no competition among the achievements of the moment, and there is no large press coverage or hype. Instead, the selections are made and announced in the fall, and on the final Monday each January about 150 Hall members, friends, family and colleagues pack the rotunda for a private ceremony to welcome the new members.

This year's class of eight was heavy on playwrights, including Pittsburgh's August Wilson, the chronicler of a century of African-American torment and triumph; Wendy Wasserstein, insightful and witty portrayer of contemporary women; and Brian Friel, the great Irish master of that island's spiritual and historic struggles. Wilson, who died in 2005 at age 60, was represented by his widow, Constanza Romero, and Wasserstein, who died last year at age 56, by her niece, Pamela Wasserstein. Friel, ill and elderly in Ireland, was represented by his American agent, Jack Tantleff.

The other inductees were actors Patti LuPone, George Hearn and Elizabeth Wilson and designers Eugene Lee and Willa Kim. Only LuPone was missing, unable to leave Los Angeles, where she is working on a production of the Brecht-Weill "Mahagonny."

To induct Elizabeth Wilson, 85, who made her Broadway acting debut in "Picnic" (1953), Hall member George Grizzard began by citing the dictionary definition of "ingenue" as a performer who is "youthful, innocent, appealing, sweet, sympathetic," all of which he ascribed to her. He noted she had played mothers to many actors, ranging from Dustin Hoffman to Lee Remick and Linda Lavin, as well as the funny, bossy office manager in the movie "Nine to Five." Her portrayals are "very distinctive, sometimes eccentric," he said -- "an ingenue quality."

In response, Wilson recalled starting as a 1942 apprentice at the Barter Theatre in Virginia, then going on to study with the legendary Sanford Meisner and Martha Graham. When a theater job took her away for a few days, she was fired from her daytime retail job with an indignant, "Miss Wilson, we're afraid your heart is not with Bloomingdale's."

Inducting costume designer Willa Kim, 77, was Hall member and fellow designer William Ivey Long, who called her work both "Dionysian and Apollonian." The first, all spirit, "comes from no one knows where"; the second, which is often overlooked, includes technical skills. Kim, he said, was the first who embraced Lycra Spandex and figured out how to cut it, paint it and steam it.

"Please don't roll your eyes back," he admonished the audience. "This is very big in my business."

When he said her latest show had just opened, she interjected that it had just begun previews, and he replied, "When Willa's costumes come on stage, that's an opening."

Kim talked about being trained as an artist and having to decide 46 years ago whether to continue to "starve in a garret" or to work full-time on designing "Red Eye of Love." Now she is about to work on that same play again, this time as a musical.

Oskar Eustis, head of the New York Public Theater, inducted puckish Eugene Lee, 67, who has designed many elaborate Broadway sets and won three Tonys, including the original "Sweeney Todd" and "Wicked," and who has since 1967 been the loyal resident designer at Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, R.I. (In the audience was the current mayor of Providence, an unusual civic tribute to the arts.)

Eustis described Lee as "a set designer who says he hates scenery," who "believes in the event, not the photos that can be taken of it" and who spent the last two decades "collecting honorary degrees from all the colleges that once kicked him out."

Aubrey Reuben, Playbill
Angela Lansbury and George Hearn at the Gershwin Hall of Fame.
Click photo for larger image.
Phylicia Rashad, emcee for the evening, with Constanza Romero, wearing her husband's Hall of Fame medallion, and Jack Viertel, of Jujamcyn Theaters.
Click photo for larger image.

"I'm just a boy from Providence," replied Lee, who noted that the Gershwin Theater was lucky for him: "I've never had a flop here." That includes the current tenant, "Wicked": "I have a musical that wants to come here, but this one won't leave."

Introducing handsome actor Peter Weller to speak for the absent LuPone, emcee Rashad said they always used to say, in a deep voice, "Patti LuPone, strong like bull." Weller continued in that same line, saying the first time he worked with LuPone he couldn't decide whether to "strangle her or blow up her house. She does not suffer lightweights; she's a whirlwind, a force of nature."

LuPone, 57, first came to the fore with her Tony for "Evita," but she is at home in either musicals or plays. Weller recalled doing a David Mamet play with her and abandoning a rehearsal in mid-morning to "knock back several Wild Turkeys at a bar. A few minutes later Mamet came in and did the same." Calling her "mercurial and matchless," he said she had "the voice of an angel and the instincts of a cat."

Inducting Friel, whose newest play is due on Broadway next year, Tantleff quoted famous lines from his "Dancing at Lughnasa" about how language fades away before the powerful images of memory. But of course Friel is also a consummate poet of language, as is clear in the current Broadway revival of his wonderful "Translations."


Beneath the pictures of Hall of Fame members: Sakina Ansari, August Wilson's daughter; Tucker Hewes; and Celia Rawson.
Click photo for larger image.

Hall member Marian Seldes, one of the grande dames of Broadway, had recourse to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, another Pulitzer Prize-winning woman playwright, to induct Wasserstein. Seldes spoke movingly, and the poem she read told of anger and regret over untimely death.

In response, Pamela, whom many know as the girl in Wasserstein's charming children's book, "Pamela's First Musical," spoke of her aunt's life and energy. She quoted her as wondering why "no adult ever said to me, 'Dear, do us a favor and don't be a doctor or lawyer, but consider a career in the not-for-profit theater.'"

Introducing Jack Viertel, creative director of Jujamcyn Theaters, to induct August Wilson, Rashad noted this had special meaning for her, since she had played Aunt Ester in Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean." (In fact, she is soon to direct that play in Seattle.) "He left us far too soon," she said, "but his body of work will live for centuries."

Viertel noted the strange symmetry for him of the evening's three playwrights, "all here at the same time, but not here." His parents had always bought him theater tickets, but when he was 15, he bought them tickets for the first time because he thought they should see Friel's "Philadelphia Here I Come." Later, he fought to get Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles" produced in a Jujamcyn theater, but the one they had free was too dilapidated for her to accept. When they had that same theater refurbished, it reopened with Wilson's "The Piano Lesson." Now, Jujamcyn has named another theater the August Wilson and is bringing "Radio Golf," the final installment of his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, to Broadway in May.

   
More Hall of Fame coverage

For accounts of recent Theater Hall of Fame inductions, click on the year: 2006; 2005; 2004; 2003; 2002; 2001

A full list of Theater Hall of Fame membership is in the "Best Plays" theater yearbook and on its web-site.

   

"One of the joys of life was having coffee with August Wilson at the Edison Hotel," Viertel said, to hear him describe snippets of his next play. "It all started with a piece of paper and a pencil and a cup of coffee." Out of that, Wilson created "a big world, as big as Friel's Ballybeg." He quoted lines from Sterling Johnson, the young man from "Two Trains Running" who reappears 28 years older in "Radio Golf," about being his own union, carrying all his own tools, and concluded, "August had his own tools and his own rules; he did it his own way."

Responding, Romero looked at her husband's name on the wall and said, "I feel a great light coming from that name. It would have filled August with tremendous pride." She recognized Wilson's daughter, Sakina Ansari, in the audience, and expressed her gratitude for having shared her husband's "artist's journey."

The final inductor was Hall member and Broadway legend Angela Lansbury, presenting Hearn, 72. Lansbury is about to return to Broadway, co-starring with Seldes in "Deuce" by Terrence McNally. She has been Hearn's friend since playing opposite him in "Sweeney Todd," when he replaced Len Cariou in the title role.

"Thank you for that introduction, Angela," Hearn said. "You almost restored my delusions of adequacy." He turned to Lee, who designed "Sweeney Todd," and confessed (his word) that in the barn on his upstate New York farm, "I have a barber pole."

He recalled he had been doing the classics "and making $300 a week for some time" when "Sweeney Todd" came along. Rehearsing with Dorothy Loudon, who replaced Lansbury, and hearing the audience's screams of approval for their predecessors "was very disconcerting."

He spoke of wooing his wife, "with a considerable handicap, wearing a dress" while doing "La Cage aux Folles." Then he found himself mired in Los Angeles for "four miserable years," from which Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn "rescued me" to do "Sunset Boulevard." Heading east, his wife asked if he'd like her to drive, and he said, "No, I'm driving every inch!"

   
Credit where credit is due

The Hall of Fame ceremony is produced with attentive care by Terry Hodge Taylor.

   

Earlier, CMU grad Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, editor of the annual "Best Plays" yearbook, presented four additional veterans' committee selections: pioneer theater manager Daniel Frohman (1851-1940), prolific playwright Owen Davis (1874-1956), first star of the American stage Thomas Abthorpe Cooper (1776-1849) and actor, teacher and director Sanford Meisner (1905-97). Also honored for his long service to the Hall as coordinator of the selection process was recently deceased Hall member Henry Hewes (1917-2006).

Rashad closed the evening by calling theater "awesome, grand and sacred," because it holds the mirror up to humanity, "in all its complexity, creating history out of love."


Post-Gazette theater critic Christopher Rawson serves on the Theater Hall of Fame board of directors. He can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.


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