For anyone who has followed theater in the Baltimore-Washington region over the past four decades, many of the most thrilling experiences have been created by actress Tana Hicken. The skin stretched over her tall, lean frame had a telegraphic quality to transmit the smallest shifts in emotion, and her soprano voice could be cottoned with kindness or barbed with cruelty. Whether you saw her in the title role of "Hedda Gabler" at Center Stage, as Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst" at Artscape, or as Eleanor of Aquitaine in "The Lion of Winter" at the Everyman Theatre, you could not forget her.
Such experiences will not come again, for Hicken died of myositis, an autoimmune disorder, at age 70 on Aug. 17. It's a great loss.
In the 1998 production of "The Lion in Winter," for example, she played the French-born queen who was estranged from her English husband, King Henry II. The two spouses were battling over which son would inherit the kingdom. Hicken's Eleanor emerged as a quite formidable opponent when she spit out insults at her husband and topped them off with a torso-rattling laugh. But she was far more dangerous when she was soothing her sons in a maternal voice or seducing her husband in a romantic voice. Hicken, revealing her own acting skills, made us see how easily those emotions could be faked.
"The Belle of Amherst" is a one-woman show, but when Hicken wrapped herself in a New England shawl and scarf, she made us aware of every family member and visitor in her house just from her reactions: her shy self-protectiveness, her avid ambition, her amused tolerance.
Both the above shows were directed by her husband Donald Hicken, head of the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts and one of the region's top freelance directors. To be in their presence was to share the pleasure of their smart and playful jousting. That give-and-take extended to their rehearsals.
Tana and Donald Hicken at the Everyman Theatre's gala in 2013.
"If you want me to try a role another way," Tana told me in 2006, "I'm all for that. As an actor, I can do a role so many different ways. Then we can look at them all to see which is best. That's what acting is: the dissection of every second of action. That's why so many shy people like myself become actors. Once you've gotten control of every second of action, there's no reason to be shy. The stage becomes the safest place in the world."
"A good example is 'The Glass Menagerie,'" Donald added. "I was asked to direct it as a co-production for the Round House Theater and Everyman, but I didn't know if anything new could be done with it. Tana said, 'Well, let's read it,' and as she reads it, I'm hearing this Amanda I've never heard before. I asked, 'What do you think of her?' She said, 'This is a woman who's fighting to save her family.' I thought, 'Here's a reason to do another production of this play; here's an approach that's not just another version of the Southern bitch on wheels.'"
Tana grew up outside of Boston and Donald outside of Buffalo. They met at the Hartford Stage Company and moved to Baltimore in 1975 to work at Center Stage. They lived for more than 20 years in the city and have been living in Sparks since the late '90s. But Tana soon learned that, until very recently, the acting opportunities were far greater in Washington than in Baltimore. So she spent much of the 1990s and 2000s commuting to D.C. and acting at Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre.
"The only place an actor can make a living in Baltimore," she claimed in 2006, "is at Center Stage, and they have no interest in building a company. I couldn't afford to keep working at Everyman and turning down work that paid three times as much at the Shakespeare Theatre. But I think of Washington as a place to work—and to demonstrate—not as a place to live. Baltimore is my home."
A memorial service for Tana Hicken will be held September 15, at 7 p.m. at the Everyman Theatre.