The word "community" was the unannounced theme when the 23rd annual Elliot Norton Awards were handed out on May 23 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston. It echoed through most of the acceptance speeches and hung in the air after the ceremony began with a surprise guest, Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston. Not known for his passion for theatre, his speech was predictably platitudinous, but there was no denying his almost giddy pride in having helped pave the way for the city's present-day boom in the construction of new venues and the restoration of old ones.
The absent guest of honor was acclaimed actress Elaine Stritch, who first appeared on a Boston stage at age 19 and whose latest appearance was just last year—60 years later—in her autobiographical one-woman show, "Elaine Stritch at Liberty." In New York participating in a memorial tribute to Cy Coleman, Stritch appeared via videotape to express her gratitude. Elliot Norton, she said, was one of the few "constructive" critics she had ever known: "I learned from his criticisms."
The Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence went to Oskar Eustis, the outgoing artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., "for a decade's inspired leadership…as director, dramaturg, fundraiser, cheerleader, and guiding spirit." Eustis, who now runs New York's Public Theater, delivered an acceptance speech that blended angry political commentary with a touching tribute to the Trinity Rep community—there's that word again—and the city of Providence itself.
A collaborative production of "Topdog/Underdog" by Trinity Rep and New Repertory Theatre earned an award for Kent Gash (outstanding director, large company) and helped New Rep become one of the evening's big winners. Its production of "Permanent Collection" brought awards to Adam Zahler (director, small company) and Benjamin Evett (actor, small company), whose performances in New Rep's "Quills" and his own Actors Shakespeare Project production of "Richard III" were also cited.
The Boston area's two biggest nonprofit theatres didn't go away empty-handed. The American Repertory Theatre's production of "The Miser" won the award for outstanding production by a large resident company, and two visiting actors to the group were also winners: Pamela Gien (solo performance) for her one-woman play "The Syringa Tree" and John Kelly (actor, large company) for his bold portrayal of Cupid in Christopher Marlowe's "Dido, Queen of Carthage." Robert Lepage's "The Far Side of the Moon," produced by Quebec's Ex Machina and staged at A.R.T., won for outstanding visiting production.
Three of the Huntington Theatre Company's offerings last season were also honored. "Sonia Flew" won local playwright-actor Melinda Lopez the honor for outstanding new script. Designer Adam Stockhausen also won for that show (set design, large resident company) and for the Huntington's presentation of "36 Views." And Phylicia Rashad garnered an award (actress, large company) for her performance in the pre-Broadway run of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean."
Richard Chambers was recognized (set design, small resident company) for his work on "The Glider" at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, and the youngest winner—who kept her speech short because "it's a school night and I have to take a test tomorrow"—was Andrea C. Ross (actress, small company), for her work in "The Sound of Music" and "Ramona Quimby" at the Wheelock Family Theatre and "A Little Night Music" at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
Súgán Theatre Company, dedicated to Irish plays, won the award for outstanding production by a small resident company for "The Sanctuary Lamp" and Zeitgeist Stage Company won for outstanding production by a local fringe company for "Blue/Orange."
Two venerable enterprises that exemplify "community" received special citations: "Shear Madness," which has an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, was honored "for 25 years of hair-raising hijinks that have kept dozens of Boston actors employed and taught a generation of performers the art of comic timing," and City Stage Company was recognized "for 30 years of inspiring children and families to make discoveries about themselves through theatre."
The winners were chosen by the Boston Theater Critics Association, whose members also presented the awards. The evening's mistress of ceremonies was WBZ-TV arts and entertainment anchor Joyce Kulhawik.