Tana Hicken: an Unforgettable Gift to Washington Theater

Tana Hicken (Vera) and Grant Harrison (Leo) in "4000 Miles at Studio Theatre 2013
Scott Suchman
Tana Hicken (Vera) and Grant Harrison (Leo) in "4000 Miles at Studio Theatre 2013

When actors pass away, more than one person is lost, and more than loved ones and family feel the loss and are diminished. I was reminded of that when I heard the news of the death of Tana Hicken at the age of 70 last week at her home in Baltimore.

Hicken was a resolute, magical gem of the Washington area theater community. She left her mark and memories everywhere she worked, which included everything from Arena Stage, where she was a part of the ground-breaking production of “The Great White Hope” in 1967 and became a company member, to Everyman Theatre and Center Stage in Baltimore, to the Studio Theatre, Theater J, the Round House Theatre and theaters in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, to Hartford, Conn., to the Stratford Festival in Ontario. Her workplaces were as diverse as the roles she played—the range was phenomenal. Once you saw her in action, you never forgot her.

You never forgot Tatiana, Emily Dickinson, the addicted mother in Eugene O’Neill’s arduous, challenging “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” mad Margaret, reciting the king’s murders in “Richard III,” the vain egoist actress Arkadina in “The Seagull,” the flinty, tough-minded and tough-hearted grandmother of “Lost In Yonkers,” the vibratingly stubborn and creatively courageous woman in Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca,” the grandmother back-boned with idealistic struggles encountering her grandson in “4000 Miles” or matter-of-factly summing up a road-wreck of confusing identities in “The Comedy of Errors.” We could all go on and on, and the result would be a parade of characters created from the page and her own gifts, marching down our memories forever.

This is what happens here, if you are a theatergoer on a frequent basis in our region, you accumulate characters because this is what happens in theaters and on stage. You walk away with stuff in your head, lines said a certain way, a shake of the head, a lean body standing straight as if to ward off affection, a fairy queen seen in a new way, calculating, smart and daring. It’s the only way we can remember actors. This is what they do to us when they are doing it right. They make not themselves unforgettable, but the parts they play, the people they become.

Hicken called her work acts of “transformations,” which is true and real, I suspect, for all actors.

Whenever you saw Hicken at work, here, there and everywhere, you were reminded of what a rich company of actors is at work in the region. If repertoire companies are rare, the sheer volume and quality of professional actors working in the Washington area’s theater companies is nothing short of amazing and rewarding. If you were fortunate enough to write about Washington theater, your memories are abundant—they come in scenes, in lines, in moments, from the work of remarkable actors and performers. This is what theater performance is all about—the sound of voices calculated to reach the farthest seats without shouting, the fact that you think you hear whispers, that the audience is in the company of fleeting moments made permanent by the sheer force of the talent of the actors on stage, and the sweat, the ideas, the back and forth of rehearsals that go into the process.

You may in the course of things have had opportunities to interview the actors, or talk with them on the phone, or share off-stage moments, occasions which make the memories of the work more vivid. Because it is the work that entangles us. The really good ones—and Hicken had 20 Helen Hayes nominations and some wins to show for her work—transform us, carry us with them, into the lives being created on stage.

I talked with Hicken on the phone when she was in the midst of playing the part of the gritty, very political old lady living in New York after a lifetime of fighting the establishment, confronted with the arrival of her young and troubled grandson on her doorstep in “4000 Miles” by the gifted playwright Amy Herzog (her “Belleville” kicks off the Studio Theatre season in early September). She was a little amazed about being considered a star on the Washington theatre scene. “My husband Donald and I have lived in Baltimore for years. That that’s what we consider home,” Hicken said.

I remember seeing her as Tatiana in an Arena Stage production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and thinking that I had never thought of her in that role, which was a failure of imagination, on my part, not hers. She brought out a sharp, sizzling, and combative quality in the role that made her very much a match for her husband Oberon, and poignantly overwhelmed after falling in love with an ass.

In the later parts of her career, she was on stage twice with one of the other gifts to Washington theater, the actress Holly Twyford, in “Lost In Yonkers” and “The Road to Mecca.” Her performance in “Yonkers” at Theater J was astonishing, and, like all of her work, unforgettable.

Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J, called her “one of the great ones.” Joy Zinoman, founder of the Studio Theater, called her a “singular artist” and “a great actress.” There will be a tribute at Everyman Theatre on Sept. 15. The Studio Theatre will hold a tribute to Hicken on Sept. 29 at 7 p.m.

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Mon, 20 Oct 2014 09:04:39 -0400

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