The Alliance Theatre found itself in familiar waters Monday night as the company swept the top prizes at the 11th annual Suzi Bass Awards.
The company took home the awards for Best Play for Phillip DePoy’s Gothic thriller Edward Foote, which made its world premiere earlier this year, and for Best Musical for the premiere of Tuck Everlasting, the adaptation of Natalie Babbitt’s book that will make its Broadway debut next spring.
Celebrating the best in Atlanta theater, the awards are named after the late Suzi Bass, a charismatic character actress who worked in theaters across the city. The event was held at the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center.
Leading the overall award tally was the Alliance, who picked up 14 Suzis all together, while Actor’s Express won six, Aurora Theatre five and Theatrical Outfit four.
Edward Foote also won awards for Best Director in a Play for Chris Coleman, the founder and former artistic director of Actor’s Express, and for Best World Premiere. (Neither Coleman, DePoy or Tuck Everlasting director Casey Nicholaw were present at the ceremony to accept their awards.)
Also having a big night was Freddie Ashley, who picked up an expected trophy for Best Actor in a Play for his work in Actor’s Express’ The Whale and a surprise win as Best Director of a Musical for the company’s Rent. Picking up his trophy for The Whale, in which he starred as a sickly, 600-pound man trying to reconcile with his daughter, he mentioned how special the role was to him in returning to acting.
“I would have never guessed this, at this stage, at this time, trying to be an actor, being told my freshman year of college that it would never happen,” Ashley said. “I’ve taken so much of my energy towards directing. Last year when the moment came along to tell this story, it was something I knew I had to do.” Ashley thanked his cast, director Heidi Cline McKerley and playwright Samuel Hunter.
The musical Memphis, co-staged by Aurora Theatre and Theatrical Outfit, won three acting awards. Travis Smith and Naima Carter Russell were named Best Actor and Best Actress in a Musical, respectively, while Megan McFarland snagged Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Smith remembered that a friend called him after seeing the show and told him he had to play the role one day. “I had been marinating on the idea of doing this show for a long time; it could not have come at a better time,” he said.
The actor thanked Aurora’s Ann-Carol Pence and Theatrical Outfit’s Tom Key. “Ten years ago I started my Atlanta theater career,” he said. “Ann-Carol told me come hell or high water she was going to make sure I could sing a harmony. Tom Key is a man who saw something in me when not many did. Your gift of friendship is something I will always cherish. I have no idea how you were so patient.”
Russell recalled sitting on the sofa in 2014 thinking she was done professionally. She vividly recalled that actor Andy Meeks won a Suzi last year for Aurora’s Mary Poppins after a lengthy break and he thanked Pence for getting him back onstage. “He said he was at home with the kids and Ann-Carol called him and told him to get his behind on stage,” she said. “And she did the same thing for me.”
Two of the night’s presenters — Tiffany Porter and Topher Payne — walked away with awards. Porter won Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role as a caregiver in The Whale and Payne’s Perfect Arrangement, produced at The Process Theatre and at Onstage Atlanta, won him the Gene-Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award.
The playwright mentioned he started the show in 2008 and it began “an incredible journey” all to way to Primary Stages Off-Broadway this fall, where it received critical acclaim.
“This is a show that played Off-Broadway without ever having an Equity production,” he said. “The amazing thing about my time in New York is that once (the play) starting getting positive response, I started getting meetings and I got to sit down with people in theater development who produce original work and I got to say, ‘Let me tell you about Atlanta.’ I am so honored to call myself an Atlanta theater artist. I am so grateful that all of my work is born here. The reason I write the way I do is because of where I live. And that is why I cannot leave; I don’t want to screw with that.”
Payne also presented the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award to the late actress Jo Howarth Noonan, who passed away unexpectedly this summer. “She offered support, onstage and off, and in doing so she made Atlanta better,” Payne said.
Howarth Noonan had a career as an actress before she got married, then returned to performing after settling down in Atlanta. “She was such a fan of Atlanta theater,” said Payne. “She was in 11 of my shows and read all of them.”
Howarth Noonan’s husband, Patrick Noonan, accepted the award. “Five months ago, Jo and I spent our last evening together,” he said. “We did what we often did — watch a movie and critique it. We retired and she did not make it through the night.”
He recalled having a pep talk with the actress, who was concerned about her career because she didn’t have a gig lined up after Stage Door Player’s Sylvia, earlier this year. He reassured her that she would work forever. “People love you as a person and you bring energy and smiles — and cookies — to the cast,” he told her. “You are everyone’s favorite cast member. You are a professional and people learn from you. And they look to you.”
Noonan will keep the memory of the actress alive with the formation of the Jo Howarth Noonan Foundation for the Performing Arts, which will help guide and mentor actresses over the age of 40 into a theater career.
Other winners included Danielle Deadwyler, Best Actress in a Play for The Alliance’s The C.A. Lyons Project; Joe Knezevich for Best Featured Actor in a Play for Theatrical Outfit’s Storefront Church, and Austin Tijerina for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Rent.
The Audience Choice Award went to Theatrical Outfit. Artistic director Tom Key paid tribute to his managing director Lee Foster, who came in last year eager to take the theater to the next level. “Last year, we hired 25 actors and this year we are employing 63,” he said.
The final award of the evening, the Spirit of Suzi Award, went to Inverness Productions, which funds local theaters and artists.
It was such a strong year for Atlanta theater that many fine productions — Theatrical Outfit’s Silent Sky, the Alliance’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s The Elephant Man and Serenbe Playhouse’s Evita — went home empty-handed. And an excellent version of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — staged by Horizon Theatre and Aurora Theatre — wasn’t even nominated.
In all, 29 awards were doled out. A full list of winners can be found at the Suzi Awards website.