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The Hickens of Baltimore find that all their world's a stage


Monday night is the Hickens' lifeboat. No matter what character Tana Hicken plays, no matter which theatrical project Donald Hicken is driven to finish, the two Baltimoreans cling to an agreement they made long ago: They stay home on Monday nights.

After that, anything goes.

At other times, the Hickens, who are among the small group of theater professionals nationally who have developed full-bodied, successful careers outside New York or Los Angeles, are either teaching drama or rehearsing or performing, or are en route to teaching or rehearsing or performing.

For the past 11 years, Ms. Hicken has been a member of Washington's Arena Stage Acting Company. This season, Ms. Hicken, who has won a Helen Hayes Award for her acting, portrayed a New England matron in search of spiritual redemption in "A Perfect Ganesh," a morphine addict in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and a spinster who finds romance in "A Month in the Country."

Most evenings, just as Ms. Hicken leaves their Baltimore home to commute to Washington, Mr. Hicken, who heads the theater department at Baltimore's School for the Arts and is artistic director of the Columbia Arts Festival, is arriving home after a day of classes and auditions and rehearsals.

"If I get home before 5, we see each other. Otherwise we leave a lot of notes," Mr. Hicken says, laughing. "But at this time of year, with the end of school and the end of the season and the start of the festival, it can be insane."

The Columbia Arts Festival is a 10-day extravaganza of poetry, drama, literature, music, dance and visual arts that begins Friday. With its opening, the Hickens will have a rare opportunity to work together in public: Ms. Hicken will perform the "The Belle of Amherst," a one-woman show about Emily Dickinson that will be directed by her husband.

In the demanding two-act play, Ms. Hicken, who last weekend wound up her season at Arena Stage with five performances in three days, brings to life the poet and her work.

"['Belle'] is an affirmation of the joy of living and of nature," she says. "It is threaded with her poems, and that is the best thing about it: People say to me afterward, 'Oh, I want to go home and read her poetry.' "

The schedule is grueling, but Ms. Hicken has performed "The Belle of Amherst" before -- to raise money for Baltimore's Everyman Theater and most recently for Tudor Hall in Bel Air.

Besides, it helps to have a certain rapport with the director.

After years of reading plays together, each Hicken says he or she can nearly read the other's mind. "As intimate as I am with a piece, we are intimate with it together. And we can acknowledge instantly what the other is thinking, often without words," she says.

"We have almost a shorthand in terms of communication," he says.

Both Hickens discovered acting while in high school, although ,, they were drawn to it for different reasons. As a shy teen-ager, Ms. Hicken, who is 50 years old, "got very brave and tried out for a play."

"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," she says.

On the other hand, Mr. Hicken, also 50, was an athlete and a self-described "flashy" drummer who was called upon to play for the school musical. And it was from the orchestra pit that he was bitten by the theater bug: "When I got into the pit, I missed a lot of cues because I couldn't take my eyes off the stage," he says.

The couple met when both were acting at the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut, and were married in 1972. As they got to know each other, they discovered that Mr. Hicken had once lived in the same Massachusetts house in which Ms. Hicken's mother grew up. This common ground pleased them so much that they bought land close by in Windsor, Mass., and built a house from salvaged theater sets.

"Every time we struck a set we'd cart off the pieces," says Ms. Hicken. "We built it by hand with no electricity. Donald got directions from books we ordered from the Whole Earth catalog."

And when Mr. Hicken, who was born Donald Bell, discovered there was an Equity actor who already had registered under that name, he decided to use her name.

In 1976, the Hickens moved to Baltimore to work at Center Stage -- Ms. Hicken as an actress and Mr. Hicken as associate director of the Young People's Theater. (He directed Center Stage productions that were given in schools.)

Those who know the Hickens well say each brings to drama what the other doesn't. "I think they recognized in each other something that the other didn't have," says Caitlin Bell, their 23-year-old daughter, who lives near Salisbury. "My dad would say my mother is an artist and he is an 'eye.' He can watch something and break it apart and make sense of it. She channels her energy through acting -- acting is another world."

As a director, both of dramatic productions and of a drama department, Mr. Hicken, who is youthful and extroverted with a knack for storytelling, views productions as totalities and aims to draw artistry from the individual.

Ms. Hicken, shy, with dark hair, deep luminous eyes and a girlish giggle, is known for her attention to detail and absorption in her characters.

She is what is referred to as a transformation actress, which means that, as much as possible, she becomes the character that she plays.

Before beginning a production, Ms. Hicken researches the period in which the piece is set and reads and rereads the script until she feels she knows the person she is to play. In the past, she has learned to bake Irish soda bread and taken up knitting because her character did.

"Tana the person sort of disappears into her roles. She transforms for her roles -- deeply, not in appearance alone, not by costume, but totally," says Douglas C. Wager, artistic director for Arena Stage.

"She has an extraordinary gift for releasing in performance as an actress. She has a radiance about what she does that you can never miss."

Consequently, at the Hickens' home, it is not unusual to bump into a morphine addict in the kitchen or a reclusive poetess in the living room, depending upon what production is running.

"When she is going into character, I used to say 'What?' because I could almost hear her thinking aloud," says Mr. Hicken. "I don't do that anymore, but the dog sometimes freaks out because the lady of the house occasionally changes persona."

Throughout the years, it has been the Hickens' philosophy to live frugally so that they may retain artistic freedom. "We have been very careful never to be in a position where we can't say no," says Ms. Hicken.

Again and again, they've made career choices that have enabled them to pursue the art of theater rather than simply hunt for jobs. Ms. Hicken has said no to pleas from New York agents and to a television series. "I read the part, and I just couldn't say those words!" she says and giggles. "Shakespeare is too good an idea for me to want to do that."

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