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Until recently, when people referred to “local performers” at Arena Stage, they could only have meant members of the troupe’s resident acting company. For the better part of four decades, Arena’s season was selected with an eye to how well it would suit the talents of such company stalwarts as Richard Bauer, Halo Wines, Stanley Anderson, and Robert Prosky, all of whom had year-round contracts. When additional players were needed, a casting directormuch to the consternation of the local theater communitywould be dispatched to New York.
There were exceptions, of course. Butlers, maids, and other walk-ons were often played by home-grown actors, many of whom qualified as stars on other D.C. stages. But such condescension only exacerbated the perception that Arena’s powers-that-be were living in an ivory tower when it came to local talent. Win a Helen Hayes Award for a leading role at Round House or Woolly Mammoth, the feeling went, and Arena thought you were qualified to play a servant.
That was then. The Women is now.
Of the 18 thespians playing vixens and hell-hags in Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 slugfest (opening tonight at Arena’s Fichandler Theater), 13 call D.C. home, and another three have appeared often enough at Arena that they might as well have set up permanent residence. Many of the cast members are former Hayes Award nominees and winners, and a coupleBrigid Cleary and Kimberly Schrafare alumnae of Studio Theatre’s all-local mounting of The Women a few years back.
Admittedly, old habits die hard: Three of the most prominent roles at Arena went to out-of-towners. Still, there’s no denying a sea change in casting practices at the area’s premier repertory company. Cynics will note that with year-round acting contracts now ancient history for the troupe, there was bound to be more hiring of locals, and that the rationale in this case is as much economic as artistic, because housing a dozen more nonresidents in hotels would have busted the production’s budget.
Still, Arena’s motivations don’t make the result any less salutary. In today’s fiscal environment, just choosing to present a play with an 18-member cast qualifies as a vote of confidence in the local acting pool…in recognition of which, we offer this guide to the women of The Women: whom they’ve played and whom they’re playing this time (with nods to the movie version). CP