In the spring of 1978, I went to see a play at Baltimore's Center Stage, David Rudkin's Ashes. The play, about a couple's struggle to conceive a child (that somehow or other became a metaphor for the troubles in Northern Ireland) was not the sort of thing I usually enjoyed. My grad-school-taste ran to classics, and much of my own onstage experience was in musicals, but the production was excellent, and moving in a way that I hadn't experienced before. The wife was played by Tana Hicken, and her performance, witty and heartbreaking, was so powerful, so memorable, so truthful, that I can remember thinking, “I wish I could do that.” So when she joined the resident company at Arena Stage a year or so later, I was eager to see more. (It's hard to explain what the old Arena company was like to those who never saw its work. Richard Bauer and Halo Wines, Mark Hammer and Leslie Cass, Terry Currier and Stanley Anderson, and many others worked together year after year in a wide range of roles, in plays from all periods and genres. When Tana joined them, DC audiences were treated to years of wonderful performances from her.)
The British critic James Agate once compared Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson by saying that Olivier brilliantly transformed himself into every character he played, and Richardson, equally brilliantly, transformed every character he played into himself. Tana was more of a Richardsonian genius—her distinctive vocal pattern and physicality were always recognizable but always seemed perfectly apt to whatever role she played. But in thinking back on the many times I saw her work, as Arkadina, as Mary Tyrone, as Emily Dickinson, as Paulina, what I keep remembering is truth—an honesty about what the characters were doing, saying, thinking, and feeling that let us connect with them. She gave unfussy, unmannered performances no matter what was going on around her.
But that's no surprise to anyone who ever shared a rehearsal room with her. She was a joy to work with, creative and flexible, but also a hard-working pro who brooked no nonsense and wasted no time. When she was rehearsing The Road to Mecca at Everyman Theatre, I was asked to come in and help with the South African accent, since I had just worked with the playwright Athol Fugard. Now, I could talk like Fugard, but I'm no dialect coach. It was Tana who quickly realized that the easiest way to get the accent from me was to have me read the lines to her, something most actors dislike. But that's what we did, sitting in the lobby of the old theatre on Charles Street, along with Deb Hazlett and John Dow. Occasionally, Tana would ask me to repeat a word or phrase, and I don't think I've ever been listened to so intently. When she appeared a dozen years later in Shakespeare Theatre Company's Strange Interlude, a production I understudied, she greeted me in the green room as she impishly always did—in Fugard's accent, in which “Bill” sounds like “Bull.” It's heartbreaking to think I won't hear that ever again.
When Arena disbanded the company, Tana was characteristically honest in her disdainful opinion of that decision (even mentioning it when she accepted a Helen Hayes Award). But whatever she thought of it, that made her available to play Eleanor of Aquitaine at Round House and Everyman, Bella at Theatre J, Emily Dickinson at Rep Stage, and other roles all over the region. As I think back on all that brilliant work, I am taken back to 1978, sitting in the balcony of Center Stage, moved to tears and laughter by an artist's simple honesty. I wish I could do that.
Two Tributes are Scheduled for Tana Hicken:
- Monday, September 15, 2014 at 7 pm at Everyman Theatre - 315 West Fayette Street, in Baltimore, MD 21201.
- Monday, September 29 at 7 pm at Studio Theatre - 1501 14th St NW, in Washington, DC 20005. Click here to RSVP - space is limited.