Theater critics award top prize — again — to playwright Bill Cain

Bill Cain

For the second year in a row, New York playwright Bill Cain has won the $25,000 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Award for a new play — this time for 9 Circles, a harrowing but ultimately uplifting play about war and redemption.

Cain also won the prestigious award last year for Equivocation, a play in which Shakespeare struggles to balance his loyalties with his conscience.

It’s the first time in the 34-year history of the lucrative prize that it has gone to the same playwright two years in a row, although three playwrights — August Wilson, Lee Blessing and Jane Martin — have won it more than once.

This year, two other playwrights have been recognized with $7,500 citations — Kathryn Grant for The Good Counselor and David Bar Katz for The History of Invulnerability.

The Steinberg/ATCA Award recognizes playwrights for the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City during the previous year. (The idea is that there are already plenty of awards programs that recognize plays that open in New York.)

The awards were announced Saturday April 2 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (Ky.).

(Full disclosure: I’m a member and former chair of the committee that chose these awards.)

Cain, who was ordained as a Jesuit priest, is the author of the widely produced play Stand-Up Tragedy and founder of the Boston Shakespeare Company. He wrote for television in the late 1990s and early 2000s, notably for the series Nothing Sacred.

Here’s more about the Steinberg/ATCA award and about the American Theatre Critics Association:

The award was created by ATCA in 1977 to honor new plays produced at regional theaters outside New York City. (No play is eligible if it has gone on to a New York production within the award year.) Since 2000, it has been generously funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, making the $40,000 Steinberg/ATCA the largest national new play award of its kind.

“The long-standing partnership between the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust and the American Theatre Critics Association has recognized some of today’s greatest writers, and helped identify the great playwrights of tomorrow,” said trustee Jim Steinberg. “We’re delighted to help support the unique telling of tales on the American stage.”

Cain’s drama follows the descent into a very recognizable hell by a young American soldier accused of an atrocity in Iraq. His journey through the bureaucratic and social maze mirrors Dante’s vision of an arduous odyssey to find redemptive self-knowledge. The play premiered Oct. 14, 2010 at the Marin Theatre Company.

Kathryn Grant’s The Good Counselor questions the definition of a good mother. It centers on an African-American lawyer defending a young white racist charged with murdering her three-week old baby. His investigation forces him to re-examine his own mother’s choice to favor him and abandon his younger brother. The work premiered July 15 at the professional Premiere Stages, based at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.

David Bar Katz’ The History Of Invulnerability uses the life of Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman, to explore the roots of art and how it relates to the real world. It contends that the nebbishy Siegel evolved Superman as a fantasy to counteract his guilt and impotence over the horror of the Holocaust half a world away. It premiered April 3 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

Twenty-seven scripts were nominated by ATCA members, and the winners were chosen by a committee led by Wm. F. Hirschman of the South Florida Theater Review.

“Despite vanishing government support and faltering donations, America’s regional theaters have persevered and prevailed as this country’s preeminent crucible for vibrant and important new works,” said Hirschman. “The recommended plays encompass a dizzyingly wide range of styles and themes, produced by a cadre of experienced and novice playwrights who are inarguable proof that theater remains a vital and relevant art form in the 21st century.”

Other committee members were Misha Berson, Seattle Times; Bruce Burgun, Bloomington Herald Times and Back Stage; Michael Elkin, Jewish Exponent (Pa.); Jay Handelman, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Pam Harbaugh, Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.); Leonard Jacobs, The Clyde Fitch Report; Elizabeth Keill, Independent Press (Morristown, N.J.); Elizabeth Maupin, Elizabeth Maupin on Theater (Orlando, Fla.); Wendy Parker, The Village Mill (Midlothian, Va.); David Sheward, Back Stage (New York); Herb Simpson, City Newspaper (Rochester, N.Y.) and Tim Treanor, DC Theater Scene (Washington, D.C.)

Playwrights honored since 1977 have included Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Jane Martin, Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage, Horton Foote and Craig Lucas. Each year’s honored plays are chronicled in the Best Plays Theater Yearbook, edited by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, alongside the 10 best plays produced that year in New York City. For a complete list of the 86 plays to win awards or citations, go to www.americantheatrecritics.org, under Awards.

The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust was created in 1986 by Harold Steinberg on behalf of himself and his late wife. Pursuing its primary mission to support the American theater, it has provided millions of dollars to support new productions of American plays and educational programs for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater.

ATCA was founded in 1974 and works to raise critical standards and public awareness of critics’ functions and responsibilities and to recognize excellence in the American theater. The only national association of professional theater critics, with several hundred members working for newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations and websites, ATCA is the U.S. national section of the International Association of Theatre Critics, a UNESCO-affiliated organization that sponsors seminars and congresses worldwide.

ATCA also presents the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, honoring emerging playwrights. The honor was given this year at the Humana Festival to Cori Thomas and her play When January Feels Like Summer.

In addition, ATCA administers the $10,000 Francesca Primus Prize, funded by the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation, honoring outstanding contributions to the American theater by a female artist who has not yet achieved national prominence. Annually ATCA makes a recommendation for the Regional Theater Tony Award, presented by the American Theatre Wing/Broadway League, and its members vote on inductions into the Theater Hall of Fame. For more information on ATCA, visit www.americantheatrecritics.org.

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