Hosted by the Boston Theater Critics Association at the BU Theatre Monday evening, the 35th Elliot Norton Awards ceremony zipped by in what must have been a record 2 hours and 15 minutes. But it was a boisterous, exuberant, jam-packed affair, encompassing a proclamation from Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a tribute to arts patron Ted Cutler, who died this past March, five musical numbers, and 29 prizes. Two-time Tony winner and longtime Boston and Broadway favorite Cherry Jones was the guest of honor; American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus received the Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence, and the Boston Arts Academy was presented with an arts education award and a contribution from the theater critics association.
The Huntington Theatre Company’s “Topdog/Underdog” and Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Edward II” were the biggest winners, with three awards each. Israeli Stage’s “Oh God,” Off the Grid Theatre Company’s “Blasted,” and the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” followed with two awards each.
The ceremony itself struck a serious note. Boston Theater Critics Association president Joyce Kulhawik noted that this is a time when “freedom of expression is being challenged” and “the [National Endowment for the Arts] is in danger of being extinguished.” Accepting the award for outstanding production by a small theater, Israeli Stage’s Guy Ben-Aharon referred to “borders going up” and “disrespect of others.” Karen MacDonald, named outstanding actress in a large theater production for her role in the Boston Marathon documentary play “Finish Line,” announced, “We will not bow to fear,” and then, not just talking about fear of terrorism, “We will continue to present our work.” And Jones, last seen here as Amanda Wingfield in the American Repertory Theater’s 2013 production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” said, “You cannot have compassion without imagination. You cannot have a compassionate society without imagination.”
There were also tributes to the Boston theater scene. Jones, recalling her arrival at the American Repertory Theater 37 years ago, said she would not have a career in the theater if it hadn’t been for the people she worked with there. Randy Harrison, named outstanding actor in a visiting production for his role in “Cabaret,” explained that he grew up in Nashua, and fell in love with the theater when he was taken to the Wang Theatre as a 5-year-old. Nora Theatre Company artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner, accepting the award for outstanding visiting production (Bedlam’s “Twelfth Night/What You Will”), called Boston “one of the most creative towns I’ve ever worked in.”
The most moving acceptance sequence came from the stars of “Topdog/Underdog.” Actors Tyrone Mitchell Henderson and Matthew J. Harris came up together to accept the award for outstanding production by a large theater. Henderson and Harris were both nominated for outstanding actor, large theater; Harris won, but he allowed that it was as much Henderson’s award as his.
If there had been an award for most people assembled on stage, it would have gone to SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Scottsboro Boys,” which brought on 16 cast members and others to accept the award for outstanding musical production by a midsize, small, or fringe theater. Seth Judice, may have been the shortest person ever to win. When the 13-year-old bounded up on stage to receive the award for outstanding musical performance by an actor for Wheelock Family Theatre’s “Billy Elliot the Musical,” a box was quickly brought out for him to stand on.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.