"Don't you feel vindicated?"
That was the question Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson asked hundreds of South Coast Repertory supporters Saturday at the theater's Giant Cast Party gala.
"Yes!" they cried, applauding wildly from their seats. "Yes!"
Nearly every theater in the country had turned down the opportunity to produce Edson's first play, "Wit," winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
But Edson found a home at SCR in Costa Mesa for her sober tale of a John Donne-poetry aficionado's battle with ovarian cancer. SCR staged the world premiere of the play on its Second Stage in 1995.
Upon learning she'd won the Pulitzer Prize, Edson thought immediately of SCR, she told the crowd. "I felt like everybody here who took such a chance on the play was vindicated."
Edson's appearance was the climax of a three-hour bash held to celebrate the end of SCR's landmark 35th-anniversary season.
The buzz: SCR director Martin Benson will direct "Wit" in October at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It will star Megan Cole, the actress who starred in the original SCR production. Benson is looking forward to working in a theater that is similar to a proposed 300-seat third stage for SCR.
At the gala, supporters also heard Broadway sensation Douglas Sills perform selections from his acclaimed role in "The Scarlet Pimpernel" on Mainstage. And in the courtyard, they mingled and dined on gourmet fare. Many raved about the Tony Award-winning theater.
"I've been a supporter of SCR since the beginning," said Hedda Marosi of Newport Beach. "I've always liked the way the theater did things. They've always been out there--avant-garde. I'll never forget the one-woman play by James Joyce where the star sat on a [chamber] pot the whole time."
"The Irish actress Fionula Flannagan sat on a chamber pot part of the time," noted a laughing David Emmes, founding artistic director with Benson of SCR. "That was the season we did Joyce's 'Women.' Burgess Meredith, God rest his soul, directed."
Also on the party playbill: the premiere of the documentary "SCR, A Personal History," produced by Emmy-nominated director Lee Shallat Chemel.
"This is the story of people who have stuck around SCR for 35 years," explained Chemel, who, besides directing episodes of "Murphy Brown," and "Spin City," has directed plays at SCR. "It is selective, subjective," she added. "And it has made me fall in love with all these people one more time."
During the alfresco reception, Emmes and Benson spoke proudly of their accomplishments, recalling good and trying times.
"We feel we're at the peak of our artistic maturity," Emmes said. "Tonight is truly a new beginning; we are full of new ideas of what SCR can do to make a lasting contribution to American theater."
Said Benson: "The greatest risk we ever took was in the early '70s when we produced a play that had failed miserably in New York.
"We were near death's door--had only enough money to do one more play. I thought, if we were going down in flames, we may as well go down in a tailspin," he said. "So we did Joseph Heller's 'We Bombed in New Haven' and it was a huge financial and critical success. It got us going again."
Also among special guests: television and stage actress Nan Martin, who gave the speech at San Francisco State College in the '60s that inspired Emmes and Benson to found their own theater.
"I made a passionate speech telling students, Do not go to New York! Do not go to L.A.! Do you own thing--start your own theater!" Martin declared. "Later, Martin Benson told me that I was the reason they came here to start a theater. That is the biggest compliment I have ever received."
Gala chairwoman Olivia Johnson seemed to sum up the party's spirit when she called it "a warm and fuzzy."
"Tonight is about love," she said. "SCR is an amazing place where people are joined together by a love of life.
"It's not just about theater," she added. "A lot of them don't get some of the things we do. But it doesn't matter. They watch and they grow, and it's fun."
Ann Conway's column is published on Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is Ann.Conway@latimes.com.