It was a lifetime ago that actress Tana Hicken rejected the obvious path leading to New York and the bland rags of ingenue parts.
“I wanted to be an actor,” Hicken says. “I wanted to do transformations.”
The current stretch for Hicken, 68, is playing the 91-year-old socialist grandmother at the center of Amy Herzog’s acclaimed drama “4000 Miles,” now at the Studio Theatre. Washington theatergoers know full well she can do it: In a highly regarded career that began immediately before “The Great White Hope” at Arena Stage in 1967, there isn’t much Hicken hasn’t done.
So when she volunteers that “this may be my last play,” it’s slightly alarming. Hicken has never been a Streep-y chameleon — her sharp features and patrician voice are unshakably distinctive — yet she somehow makes herself over again and again. Reflecting on Hicken’s body of work generates a prism of light:
She’s been the life-giving Dolly Levi (in “The Matchmaker,” opposite Robert Prosky) and the life-annihilating Hedda Gabler. She has played Madames vain (Arkadina in Chekhov’s “The Seagull”) and dotty (Arcati in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit”). She’s starred in Shakespeare and Shaw, Chekov and Brecht; she has shined in mighty Irish works such as “Dancing at Lughnasa” (at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Arena Stage) and “Juno and the Paycock” (at Arena).
She was a mainstay of Arena’s acting company for 14 years and the last one on the payroll when the company evaporated for good in 1998. She earned 12 Helen Hayes Award nominations during that period, winning for leading roles in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” and Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
“Hicken is so good it’s easy to take her for granted,” Lloyd Rose declared in her Washington Post review of “Long Day’s Journey,” typical of the critical glows the actress has collected by the armload.
Post-Arena, she has been nominated seven more times for roles with five different troupes, and she is still called on to shoulder demanding loads. Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn relied on Hicken for a daunting passage of the epic “Strange Interlude” last year. In recent seasons she’s done Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” at Theater J and Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca” at the Studio Theatre, the latter with her “4000 Miles” director, Joy Zinoman.
“If you want to learn something about acting, just watch her,” Zinoman instructed the young performers in “4000 Miles.”
Herzog’s 90-minute play is about Leo, a mixed-up 21-year-old who has just biked across the country and pops into his grandmother Vera’s Manhattan apartment in the middle of the night. The only other characters are Leo’s girlfriend, Bec, and a party girl named Amanda.
Zinoman, who retired as Studio’s founding artistic director in 2010, was touring Southeast Asia when her successor, David Muse, asked if she’d like to direct the play with Hicken in it. Even though Hicken has spent a good deal of her career performing big works in large spaces, Zinoman says the actress has an intuitive sense of how to capitalize on the Mead’s small-thrust stage. The director also speaks to something that contributes to Hicken’s clean, incisive style: “She knows how to touch the emotional truth of a moment and turn away quickly, so it doesn’t become self-indulgent.”
“She’s an actor’s actor,” says in-demand performer Holly Twyford. As the maid in “Long Day’s Journey,” Twyford watched Hicken work from the wings, and she co-starred with Hicken in “Yonkers” and “Mecca.”
“She’s a pistol,” says Henry Strozier, who calls Hicken a “funny, funny woman” who “used to break me up terribly” during their years together at Arena. Hicken and Strozier triumphed as the husband and wife ripping each other to bits in August Strindberg’s “Dance of Death.”
“She’s no pushover,” says Strozier, describing Hicken’s willingness to challenge directors. “The rest of us are so used to putting up with whatever tumbles down the mountain.”
Like Vera in “4000 Miles” — a figure based on Herzog’s real-life communist grandmother — Hicken is an unrepentant lefty. “My parents were socialists,” she volunteers. She arrived here in the 1960s to march for civil rights and against the Vietnam War as much as to act; these days, she frets about salary equity for actors and about the corporate culture that has taken over the once-idealistic regional theater movement.
“I’m always very full of negative statements about this,” Hicken says, aghast that one of her “4000 Miles” colleagues is paying 15 percent to a manager and 10 percent to an agent.
She knew as of high school (near Boston) that she wanted to act, and in college at Antioch she was part of a street theater group performing in Cleveland. “We got raided by the vice squad one time for singing a Brecht song called ‘S--t On Your War,’ ” Hicken giggles.
She came to Arena in 1967 as a last-minute substitute and had only three days’ rehearsal to learn two roles. Somehow she got away with telling Arena founder and producing director Zelda Fichandler that she had to take one of those days off to help organize an anti-war rally. In 1968, the riots chased her out of D.C. after two days bunkered at Arena.
“We stayed there and watched the city burn,” she recalls. “There was no Southwest then. There were none of those houses, and you really had a clear view of those mud flats back in the direction of the Capitol. And the sky was pink with fire.”
Hunting down worthwhile work, Hicken traveled to such places as Cincinnati and Indianapolis to be in “Macbeth” and “Desire Under the Elms.” In the 1970s she spent several years at Hartford Stage, the scene of a good story about meeting Donald Bell, her future husband. He was in charge of props, and she had to be sure the salad she ate on stage would pass muster with Cesar Chavez.
“Opening night, my bowl of lettuce came out with a huge union label in the middle,” she says, laughing at the memory.
Donald Hicken, as he became known when he had to register an Equity name (Donald Bell was taken), has been running the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts for three decades. The Hickens, who have a grown daughter, lived in Baltimore for 20 years and have spent the past 12 in the countryside north of the city (which means Tana has spent her career commuting to D.C.). In a back-to-the-land spirit, they also have a place in the Berkshires on property they cleared with a two-person saw, and where they happily did without electricity for eight years.
Strozier, now based in New York, is a friend of the Hickens, and they see each other in New England. He suggests that Tana still can do whatever she likes but that “she’s not interested in the commercial theater at all.” Strozier grew tired of the stage and now does commercials and voice-over work, but he reports that Hicken’s old-school faith in good plays and good parts remains strong.
If “4000 Miles” is Hicken’s last show, it’s not because she’s quitting. It’s because she knows that the worthwhile work is increasingly rare. Twyford says she won’t be surprised if Hicken chooses not to appear again.
“There’s a lot of schlock out there,” Twyford says. “You want something not only that you can take a real bite out of, but that’s going to mean something more to you.”
“I would do it again if I were offered a play like this that I like very much,” Hicken says. “I have to like them.”
“4000 Miles,” by Amy Herzog. Through April 28 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.