Tana Hicken, a Baltimore actress and teacher who deftly portrayed a wide variety of characters on stage during a professional career that spanned more than four decades, died Aug. 17 at her home in Sparks of myositis, an autoimmune disorder. She was 70.
"I think she was the finest stage actress I've ever witnessed in my life. She was just riveting," said Vince Lancisi, founder of Everyman Theatre, who first saw Ms. Hicken at Washington's Arena Stage when he was a student at the Catholic University of America.
"She could light up the stage like no one else. She could raise the words off the page, and it was momentous and audiences were always deeply moved," he said. "For Tana, every moment had to be perfect."
"She was a singular artist who made a profound impact in Washington, where she was universally admired and not in a slavish or starry way," said Joy Zinoman, founder and artistic director of the Studio Theater in Washington, where she directed Ms. Hicken in her final play, "4,000 Miles," last year.
"She was the kind of actress who drew you to the light and made you think afterward. That is what we do," Ms. Zinoman said.
"She was a citizen of the world, and not insular. She had very high standards and work ethic that made the work worthwhile for all of those who worked with her," Ms. Zinoman said. "I really do think it was the standards that she set of how you behave as a public person, as an artist, and what your values are."
The daughter of Philip Hicken, an artist, and Evangeline Hicken, a homemaker, Tana Hicken was born on a Gallisten, Ala., base where her father was serving in the Army.
After World War II, the family returned to Watertown, Mass. During her years at Watertown High School, Ms. Hicken nursed an ambition to become an actress.
As a high school student, she was a shy teenager who "got very brave and tried out for a play," she told The Baltimore Sun in a 1995 interview. "I started to speak and everyone listened. It didn't take me long to figure out the power of concentration; that if I concentrated, people listened."
After graduating in 1962 from Watertown High, she earned a bachelor's degree in drama in 1967 from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
While she was in college, Ms. Hicken was a member of a street theater group that performed in Cleveland.
Her professional career began in 1967 as a last-minute substitute at Arena Stage, where she had only three days to prepare for two roles.
In 1968, while appearing in "The Great White Hope" at the theater, Ms. Hicken, a political activist, was out distributing leaflets against the Vietnam War when riots swept the city. The actress and other members of the company were forced to hole up in the theater.
Ms. Hicken spent time in various roles at theaters in Cincinnati and Indianapolis, and spent a season at the Hartford Stage Company. This was followed by a season at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater before she returned to Hartford, where she met her future husband, Donald Bell, who was in charge of props.
In 1972, the couple married, and when her husband joined Actors Equity, there already was a "Donald Bell," so he took Donald Hicken as his professional name.
They moved to a carriage house in Bolton Hill in 1975, when Mr. Hicken was hired to direct Center Stage's Young People's Theater Program. Ms. Hicken taught acting students in Baltimore during her time at Center Stage.
Ms. Hicken's memorable performance at Center Stage in 1985 as Hedda Gabler in Henrik Ibsen's play brought her critical acclaim.
"Hicken doesn't camp," wrote Evening Sun critic Louis Cedrone. "She simply plays Gabler as a coquettish witch, and it is she who carries this production."
It was "Hedda Gabler" that brought her once again to the attention of Arena Stage.
When plans to establish a resident company at Center Stage failed, Ms. Hicken was invited to join the resident company in the mid-1980s at Arena Stage and performed there until the company was disbanded in 1998.
One of Ms. Hicken's favorite roles was playing the poet Emily Dickinson in the one-woman show "The Belle of Amherst" at venues in Baltimore, including Center Stage. The show was first directed years ago by her husband, who has been director since 1980 of the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts and also directs productions at Everyman Theatre.
As Emily Dickinson, Ms. Hicken was able to draw on her New England background to bring a vivid depth, sharpness and reality to the character.
In a 2013 interview with The Washington Post, Ms. Hicken explained that what she did on stage was "transformations," as she became the character she was playing.
"She is one of the area's best actresses, a tall, thin woman with knifelike features and a voice to match," reported the City Paper in a 2006 profile. "She disappears into roles like Meryl Streep."
"She had two components as an actor," said Ms. Zinoman. "She played roles honestly and had the ability to create memorable characters. She could identify with the character and wring life out of it."
Ms. Zinoman recalled that while Ms. Hicken was performing in a play at Studio Theater, she had fallen in the garden of her Sparks home and broken several ribs.
"I suggested we use the understudy, and she said that we could reblock the scenes where she had to do such things as lifting," Ms. Zinoman said.
"I should have remembered that she is a sturdy New England woman. By the time I got to the theater, she had reblocked all the scenes. I said, 'Are you sure about this?' and she replied, 'I can play, and I will play.'"
Ms. Zinoman said that while breathing was difficult for Ms. Hicken because of the broken ribs, she went on to give a bravura performance that night.
Ms. Hicken's daughter, Caitlin Bell, author of the one-act play "Three Jewish Lives," directed her mother in a 2003 production of the play at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Ms. Hicken played Henrietta Szold, a Baltimorean and a Zionist who founded Hadassah in 1912.
In 2004, Ms. Hicken returned to Center Stage in a production of "Picnic," William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
"Returning to Center Stage after a long absence, Tana Hicken brings cheerfulness and grit to the unglamorous role of a neighbor living vicariously through the young people next door," wrote then-Sun drama critic J. Wynn Rousuck.
At the conclusion of the run of "4,000 Miles," when there was speculation that it might be her final role, she told The Post that she needed to find quality roles.
"I would do it again if I were offered a play like this that I like very much," she told The Post. "I have to like them."
"She decided that she wanted both family and career and is remembered not only as a brilliant actor, but as an amazing mother and wife," her daughter said.
When the theatrical family wasn't working, they enjoyed spending time at a second home in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.
A memorial for Ms. Hicken will be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 15 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. A memorial tribute will be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Studio Theater, 1501 14th St. N.W., in Washington.
In addition to her husband and daughter, Ms. Hicken is survived by her mother, Evangeline Hicken of Cockeysville; a sister, Theo Hicken-Paquin of Nantucket, Mass.; and a grandson.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun