The morning after David James made local theater history, his acting career came full circle as he stepped into a bunny costume.
It was more than 25 years ago that James made his Hollywood stage debut. But it was in Hollywood, Maryland. And it was as Peter Rabbit in a first-grade play at Holly Park Elementary School.
This week, James became the first person to win a prestigious Helen Hayes award for a dinner theater production, and the first to win for a play performed in Howard County.
The next morning, still buzzing with excitement from the awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center Monday night, he showed up early at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia for his role as Peter Cottontail in a children's theater production.
He did not notice the similarity of this role with his first, until his mother pointed it out.
"It certainly brings you back to reality," he said.
The awards -- first distributed in 1984 -- are the Washington equivalent of Broadway's Tony Awards.
James, 32, won as best supporting performer in a resident musical for his portrayal of the Scarecrow in the Toby's Dinner Theatre production of "Wizard of Oz."
A resident musical is a show produced and performed at a local theater, as opposed to a nonresident production, which originates somewhere else but is performed in the Washington area.
"Dinner theater, yes!" James crowed, as he accepted his award.
People involved in Howard County theater see James' victory as an indication that they are finally getting some respect.
"We're making such big strides that it's just a matter of time," said Carole Graham Lehan, an actress, director and playwright who lives in Columbia.
She received Helen Hayes nominations for best actress in a resident musical for "It's a Wonderful Life," at Toby's and for a play she co-wrote -- "Look! We Have Come Through!" -- that was performed at Olney Theatre.
Her nominations were among 17 garnered by Howard County theaters, which have been eligible for Helen Hayes awards only since 1994.
"I think that's tremendously significant," said Linda Levy Grossman of the Washington Theater Awards Society, which presents the Helen Hayes awards.
Toby's got nine nominations, including James' winning nomination and three of the five nominations for best lead actress in a resident musical.
"This is incredible. We are all so very excited," said Toby Orenstein, owner of Toby's Dinner Theatre.
Rep Stage, which is in residence at Smith Theatre on the JTC campus of Howard Community College in Columbia, received the other eight nominations.
"This is just unheard of," said Kasi Campbell, assistant artistic director of Rep Stage.
She said she was disappointed that none of the nominations resulted in awards, but she acknowledged that it was an honor to be considered.
Both theaters have been nominated for Helen Hayes awards in the past, but neither has won.
"It's always thrilling to see theaters nominated and win that haven't before," said Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington. "I'm hoping it reflects a coming of age for those institutions."
Orenstein and Campbell think it does. "A lot of people don't think of dinner theater as the most prestigious place to work," said Orenstein. "I think now there is more recognition in the arts
community of the quality of work that we do."
Campbell said Rep is finding it easier to attract production people and artists. "When you're this far out from the Washington Beltway, they don't want to come out unless they know they're going to get seen and reviewed," she said.
The positive buzz surrounding Rep Stage helped persuade Shannon Parks, a Washington actress, to audition for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which Rep Stage is co-producing with Baltimore's Everyman Theater. She plays Maggie.
"It's really exciting to be here at this time, when so much is happening," Parks said.
For now, the biggest excitement in the Howard County theater crowd surrounds James, who broke the Helen Hayes awards barrier.
"I hope it's a breakthrough," he said. "There's some really good work in Howard County."
Helen Hayes nominations
Toby's Dinner Theatre:
Outstanding Supporting Performer, Resident Musical: David James, "The Wizard of Oz"
Outstanding Musical Direction, Resident Production: Doug Lawler, "It's a Wonderful Life"
Outstanding Director, Resident Musical: Toby Orenstein, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"
Outstanding Resident Musical: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"
Outstanding Lead Actress, Resident Musical: Carole Lehan, "It's a Wonderful Life" and Cathy Mundy, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and Stephanie Waters, "The Wizard of Oz"
Outstanding Lead Actor, Resident Musical: Stephen Schmidt, "It's a Wonderful Life"
Outstanding Costume Design, Resident Production: Jane Shafer, "The Wizard of Oz"
Outstanding Lead Actor, Resident Play: Jason Patrick Bowcutt, "Never the Sinner," a co-production with Signature Theatre
Outstanding Sound Design, Resident Production: Scott Burgess, "Travels With My Aunt" and David Maddox, "Never The Sinner," a co-production with Signature Theatre.
Outstanding Director, Resident Play: Kasi Campbell, "Travels With My Aunt" and Ethan McSweeny, "Never the Sinner," a co-production with Signature Theatre.
Outstanding Resident Play: "Travels With My Aunt" and "Never the Sinner," a co-production with Signature Theatre.
Outstanding Lighting Design, Resident Production: Jeff Hill, "Never the Sinner," a co-production with Signature Theatre.
Pub Date: 5/07/98