The actress with the refined features and tentative smile takes us by surprise every time. No matter how often we've watched Deborah Hazlett on stage, we never see it coming.
She excels in portrayals of sensitive, intelligent, brittle women in their 40s, and in productions from Hedda Gabler to S ight Unseen to Rabbit Hole, there's usually a moment when these characters have been stressed beyond endurance. Suddenly, explosively, the characters break down.
Such is the strength of Hazlett's commitment that she seems almost dangerous - at least, to herself. Hazlett doesn't edge her way slowly down an emotional cliff, but hurtles headlong over the precipice. It seems a miracle that she survives.
Hazlett has been pulling off this feat brilliantly for the 10 years she's been a member of Everyman Theatre's ensemble, but her many fans have yet to become accustomed to it. Even after a decade of Hazlett performances, these scenes are still shocking.
"Deb is always digging for the truth, and she's relentless about it," says Vincent Lancisi, Everyman's artistic director. "She treats the script like a road map to her emotional core, and she gives a piece of herself in every role she plays."
The actress is among the featured performers in Everyman's production of The Cherry Orchard, which opens tomorrow. Hazlett plays Madame Ranevsky, a spendthrift aristocrat who owns the Russian estate of the title, which is scheduled to be sold at auction to settle unpaid debts.
And, yes, Madame Ranevsky might just have a meltdown moment.
"If there are truths you're not willing to go after, if you're not willing to be that exposed, you're not doing your job," Hazlett says. "That's the gift that you bring - the courage to bear witness. It's the reason I decided that a life in the theater is not a frivolous pursuit."
We might all be made of common clay, but in person, Hazlett is closer to a china teacup than an earthenware mug, with delicate features and a wide-lipped mouth. Her hair varies in color from honey to strawberry blond, depending on the dictates of the role she's performing.
"When you look at Deb across the stage, and she looks back at you through these huge navy eyes, it's apparent that she doesn't have anything made up in advance," says actress Megan Anderson. "Her openness is pretty extraordinary. No matter how many times you might have done the scene, every time she gets on stage, it's completely fresh."
Hazlett's talents are beginning to get her noticed outside Baltimore. She has appeared on regional stages from Syracuse, N.Y., to Washington to Palm Beach, Fla., and has played roles on such television shows as Law & Order, Homicide: Life on the Street and Young Americans. She also narrates audiobooks - most notably those starring Tess Monaghan, the fictional detective created by Laura Lippman, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun - and teaches classes in stage movement.
"Deb has very strong technique," says Lancisi, who is directing Cherry Orchard. "Every time I cast her in one of my shows, I know I'm in good hands."
Hazlett was born in Erie, Pa. Her father was in the military, and both parents were amateur thespians. After moving to a new location, the family members would join the community theater troupe.
"As a young child, I'd hang out in dressing rooms and fall asleep," Hazlett says. "Then I started getting bit roles in adult productions."
She sharpened her performance skills at the University of South Carolina, where she earned a master's degree in theater, and with Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, where she served a long internship. Hazlett, who lives in Baltimore, has worked full time as an actress since 1994.
Her perfectionism can have its down side. In the past nine years, Anderson has played Hazlett's sister three times and her cousin once. In The Cherry Orchard, she will play her older daughter. The two women are close off-stage, and Anderson teases her friend about the 3.1 million questions that Hazlett asks during each rehearsal in her quest to understand her character's motivation.
"Sometimes, I'll be like, 'It's so interesting that we stopped rehearsal to talk about the way this sentence is punctuated," Anderson says.
More significantly, Hazlett plays roles that exert a physical toll that goes far beyond simple exhaustion.
"I'll come off stage after a scene in which my character has been crying," the actress says. "My eyes are red, my nose is stuffed up and I'm breathing hard.
"My body is going, 'We're upset! We're upset! We're upset!' and I go, 'No, no, we're just acting, calm down,' and my body goes, 'We're upset! We're upset! We're upset!' "
Though Hazlett might be skilled enough to fool her own body, she doesn't fool herself. Hazlett the human being is much different than the characters she plays.
She admits, "Our problems in life are our problems in work," but adds: "My life, fortunately, is not as dramatic as most of my characters' lives, and I have better coping skills."
Lancisi sees in Hazlett the playfulness of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (a role she performed last season) and the vulnerability of Madame Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard. But he much prefers the living actress.
"The real Deb is far more dynamic and exciting than any of these characters," he says, "and she has to write her own script."
if you go
The Cherry Orchard runs tomorrow through April 26 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets $20-$38. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.