Barrymore nods favor Wilma and Arden plays

At the South Philadelphia High School graduation, principal Otis Hackney III asks the crowd to quiet down so they can hear valedictorian Duong Nghe Ly give his address. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)

The Wilma Theater's production of an offbeat, often funny play about the early history of vibrators and a children's show at the Arden Theatre top the nominations for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, the region's professional-theater honors, being announced Tuesday.

The Wilma's In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, drew 12 nominations, including one for best production of a play and another for best dramatic ensemble. It was the third play by Sarah Ruhl to be staged by the Wilma, and its production here - directed by company cofounder and artistic director Blanka Zizka - was funnier and more literal than that on Broadway in 2009.

Zizka, nominated for her directing, joined set designer Alexis Distler, lighting designer Thom Weaver, costumer Oana Botez-Ban, sound designer/composer Christopher Colucci, and five of the cast with nominations.

The Wilma garnered 18 nods for its productions this past season, plus another, with 1812 Productions and Philadelphia Young Playwrights, for education and community service at South Philadelphia High School. A special Barrymore will go to the school's principal, Otis Hackney, who worked with the three companies to produce an original piece, Southern High Voices, that examined the school's diversity. The three-semester project, involving more than 50 students who studied acting and playwriting, is a response to December 2009 incidents in which African American students attacked Asian students.

Tying with In the Next Room for a dozen nominations is The Flea and the Professor, a world-premiere musical by Jordan Harrison and Richard Gray, based on the tales of Hans Christian Anderson, about a professor who has only a flea in his vest to accompany him on what becomes a world tour. The children's show was nominated for best musical production and best ensemble, and among the nominees are its director, Anne Kauffman. The play's two leading men, Rob McClure and Scott Greer, are nominated for best musical actor.

The Barrymores are organized by the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, the umbrella group of theaters here, which is to announce the nominations Tuesday online.

Barrymore nominators saw 147 eligible shows between last September and this summer. In the last decade the region has become a magnet for theater and theater artists, and despite the economic climate 51 professional theater companies - the most ever - were eligible this year; 23 received nominations. Winners will be announced Oct. 3 at a ceremony at the Walnut Street Theatre, followed by a reception at the Benjamin Franklin House.

Arden Theatre Company received the most nominations - 22 in all. It received two best-musical nominations, one for The Flea and the Professor and the other for a production of The Threepenny Opera last fall, for which the company's producing artistic director, Terrence J. Nolen, got a best musical director nomination. The Arden also is nominated for a best new play award, for local playwright Michael Hollinger's Ghost-Writer.

The jovial 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has 10 nominations - but for two different productions. Nine nominations went to Norristown's Theatre Horizon, including best musical production and ensemble, and Matthew Decker's direction. The remaining nod, to Ali Stroker as best musical actress, was for Philadelphia Theatre Company's version.

The Delaware Theatre Company, a Wilmington stage considered part of the region's theaters, racked up 11 nominations, all but one for its staging of the dramatic version of Around the World in 80 Days. They include one for best production of a play, and another for Aaron Posner's direction.

Walnut Street Theatre's nine nominations include best musical production and ensemble for Miss Saigon, and for its director, Bruce Lumpkin. Theatre Exile's six included a best-play nod for its super-bloody The Lieutenant of Inishmore and a nomination for its director, Matt Pfeiffer.

Six of Philadelphia Theatre Company's eight nominations were for Let Me Down Easy, the striking one-woman examination of the nation's health system by Anna Deavere Smith. She received a nod for best actress in a play; the play was nominated as best production, and its director, Leonard Foglia, was nominated as well.

Bristol Riverside's five nominations were all for its spring staging of the musical adaptation of Little Women, and include one for ensemble acting, a best musical actress nod for Jennie Eisenhower, and a musical actor nomination for Stephen Schellhardt. A zany coproduction by Center City's 11th Hour Theatre Company and Souderton's Montgomery Theater, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, received five nominations, including best musical production and ensemble, and a best musical actress nod to Leah Walton.

Other nominations for best ensembles in a play went to the Delaware Theatre Company's Around the World in 80 Days, Act II Playhouse's Art, and the sweet, funny My Wonderful Day, about a schoolgirl assigned to write an essay about a wonderful day, which turns out to be at a house full of reprehensible adults. It is also nominated for best play production.

The fifth entry for best dramatic ensemble is for the Inis Nua company's Dublin by Lamplight. One of a series of Irish plays presented by different companies last season, the Inis Nua production is currently running Off-Broadway.

Nominated with Hollinger's Ghost-Writer for best new play are D.W. Gregory for Molumby's Million, produced by Iron Age Theatre; 1812 Productions' David Ingram, Antony Lawton, Jennifer Childs, and Dave Jadico for Our Show of Shows, modeled on Sid Caesar's iconic TV variety show; Tarell Alvin McCraney for Run Mourner Run at Flashpoint Theatre, and Jacqueline Goldfinger for the terrible girls at Azuka Theatre.

Around the World in 80 Days at Delaware Theatre Company had four of 10 nominees for best actor or actress in a play: Farah Bala, Dan Hodge, Greg Wood, and James Ijames (who also won a supporting actor nod for Arden's Superior Donuts, as did Hodge for the Walnut's The 39 Steps).

Other nominees for best performers in a play are Lavita Shaurice (My Wonderful Day), Jeremiah Wiggins (In the Next Room), Charlie DelMarcelle (Dublin by Lamplight), Catharine Slusar (Exile's Iron), Grace Gonglewski (Arden's A Moon for the Misbegotten), and Kate Eastwood Norris (Delaware's Lucy).

Other nominees for best actors and actresses in musicals are Damon Kirsche for A Passing Wind, part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts; Melinda Chua and Mel Sagrado Maghuyop (Miss Saigon), and Mary Martello (Threepenny Opera).

The five nominees for the $10,000 F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging theater artist are designer Thom Weaver and performers Charlotte Ford, James Ijames, Rob McClure, and Steve Pacek.

The lifetime achievement award goes to Harry Dietzler, for 35 years the force behind hundreds of notable children's and community-theater shows at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center, where he is the founding executive director. Actors and other theater artists he has mentored work in all areas of theater, and he was nominated by one of them, Tina Fey.

The first-ever Barrymore for a distinguished artist will go to playwright Terrence McNally, who stages new works here in collaboration with the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which premiered his Golden Age, Unusual Acts of Devotion, Some Men, and Tony winner Master Class.   

Sixty-six voters - theater educators and administrators as well as artists - made this year's nominations. Eight randomly selected voters attended each of 147 shows and gave points from 1 to 100 in each category. The top point-earners became the nominees. Those with the most points will be announced at the awards ceremony in October.


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Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or