Joy Zinoman Returns to Studio Theatre for ‘4000 Miles’
Joy Zinoman, looking very cool in various shades of black and gray, was sitting on a couch on the second floor of the Studio Theater recently near a window that overlooked a bustling flow of traffic on 14th Street, a bank, numerous shops that hadn’t been there back in the day, all the signs of neighborhood transformation that she and the Studio Theatre had helped shape.
She didn’t dwell on it. She just took it in. Zinoman, who founded of the Studio Theatre in 1978 and was its artistic director until she announced her retirement in 2010, was back. She never really left, of course, since she still teaches here in the Studio Acting Conservatory, but now she is back to direct.
In an interview with the Metro Weekly after her retirement, she was asked if she would direct in the future at the Studio. “If the play is right, and they offer me enough money,” she said.
It looks as if the play is right. “4000 Miles”, by rising young playwright Amy Herzog, who was the subject of a feature profile in Time Magazine’s Culture section recently, is the thing, for sure. “David [artistic director David Muse] asked me if I wanted to direct this play, so I read it, and I was just drawn to it. It’s perfect for me and the Studio. It’s powerful, intimate, and completely unsentimental. It’s a generational play because the main characters are a young man who visits, then stays with his 91-year-old grandmother in Greenwich Village. Amy drew the character from her own grandmother. Then there’s Tana, getting a chance to work with Tana Hicken.”
Hicken, of course, is one of Washington theater’s most consummate, unfailingly excellent actresses, a company member at Arena Stage when it sported arguably the country’s outstanding repertoire company, as well as gracing Washington stages in major and memorable parts for decades.
Zinoman and Hicken last worked together when Zinoman and Studio mounted Athol Fugard’s moving “The Road to Mecca” with Holly Twyford. In the intimate spaces of the Mead Theatre, that production measured up to and perhaps surpassed the original production seen at the Eisenhower Theater many years ago with Fugard himself and Kathy Bates.
“Tana is a joy to work with, it’s like coming home,” Zinoman said. Indeed, talking with Zinoman and watching her as Muse came by to say hello, as well as a costume designer and members of the staff here, there was an air of homecoming. Zinoman had been rehearsing for days already, so it was not like a “look who’s here” kind of thing. Rather, there was a feeling of professional and personal pride that a founder might have, that the place was solid and on sure footing.
“It’s not like you stop in theater. You don’t just retreat,” Zinoman said. “When I announced my retirement, it was with the idea of not so much leaving, but retiring when you’re still doing your best. And I didn’t want to hang around—there’s a great temptation there, you know, to do that, and I didn’t want to do that. So we traveled, a lot. We lived in Italy for a while, and that was getting away from it. You couldn’t accidentally stop by.” She has, of course, a rich family life—she travels with her husband Murray, a retired state department official, they have three grown children with lives of their own, and careers of their own, and she is a very proud grandmother of four grandchildren.
“You cannot imagine how wonderful that is, being a grandmother, I love it,” she said. Mind you, she’s not being gushy here, although she’s entitled, she’s just stating a fact not so matter-of-factly.
“Herzog is phenomenal, it’s a great play for me to be doing,” she said. “I also love teaching here, there’s a continuity to all that.” Plus, she did “Sounding Beckett”, an unusual production of three short plays by Samuel Beckett with musical composition and performance by the Cygnus Ensemble at the Classic Stage Company in New York. “It was a terrific experience, it was a challenge, and we had Ted, Philip and Holly.” That would be Ted van Griethuysen, Philip Goodwin and Holly Twyford and Zinoman’s informality speaks to her reputation as an actor’s director—and perhaps also a designer’s and theater people’s director.
“I think in terms of the actors, that’s true but I’ve worked with so many really gifted actors—and that’s why working with Tana is so important to me in this production,” she said. This is about the time that a conversation with Zinoman turns into a memory play, a parade of actors, designers, partners in time like Russell Metheny, playwrights and plays because, barring kinescope and videos, that’s what we have of plays, their remembered affects and effects. When “The Slab Boy Trilogy”, a set of three plays rich with British working class characters which she brought to Studio a number of years ago came up in our talk, she smiled. “Oh, Slab Boys, they were wonderful plays,” she said, sounding then like someone remembering the brilliant and fully-formed antics of a favored child.
Actors have a special place here—you can practically recite the parade from memory—Jon Tindle, van Griethuysen, Goodwin, Twyford, Nancy Robinette, Sarah Marshall, June Hansen, Floyd King, just to name a few, and, of course, Tana Hicken.
Hicken sounds surprised at being considered a star in the firmament of Washington actors, although she understands it. “My husband Donald and I have lived in Baltimore for years, and that’s what we consider home.” He heads the Baltimore School for the Arts and is a prominent director and directed his wife in the one-person play “The Belle of Amherst” about Emily Dickinson. Yet, it’s also true that Washingtonians have been blessed with an accumulated avalance of fine performances from Hicken, working at Arena as part of the repertoire company until it was disbanded, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, at Theater J, at Everyman Theatre, and at Studio.
“It’s always rewarding to be working with Joy,” she said. “And what I love about this play, is that, well, it’s really very funny. I don’t mean to say it’s a comedy, it has serious themes, beautiful writing, but it is also very funny, in spite of its seriousness. I just did a prevue and luckily the audience seems to get it, they laugh. But I’m surrounded by young actors, which makes the play resonate strongly.”
If your mind contained vivid memories of performances in the Washington theater, you’d be surprised to find how often Hicken pops up—in Shakespeare, in Chekhov, as the flinty grandmother (again with Twyford in “Lost in Yonkers”, in a searing, lost performance in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and one recalls for some reason, as the person who sums up and ties together all the improbable, frayed loose threads at the end of The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “The Comedy of Errors”. Very funny indeed.
“4000 Miles” is currently playing at the Studio’s Mead Theatre.