Tana Hicken, an actress of versatile talent who was a mainstay of Washington theaters for decades, died Aug. 17 at her home in Sparks, Md. She was 70.
She had an autoimmune disorder, said her husband, Donald Hicken, a theatrical director who heads the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts.
Ms. Hicken came to Washington in the late 1960s and appeared in Arena Stage’s 1967 world premiere of Howard Sackler’s boxing and interracial drama “The Great White Hope.” The show, in which Ms. Hicken played a civil rights leader, helped propel James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander to stardom and later earned Tony Awards on Broadway as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Ms. Hicken was well known to audiences of the Studio Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre and Theater J in the District, Round House Theatre in Bethesda and Center Stage in Baltimore and was a longtime member of the Arena Stage company.
“Anyone who goes to Arena at all regularly,” theater critic Lloyd Rose once wrote in The Washington Post, “knows that Tana Hicken is a great actress.”
She received 20 nominations for Helen Hayes Awards, a prestigious honor in the regional drama community, and received the prize for her leading roles as a complicated wife in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” (1987) and as the morphine-addicted mother in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1996).
She was particularly noted for the range of characters she portrayed on stage. Among them were Titania in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” poet Emily Dickinson in William Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst,” Arkadina in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and the obsessive mother Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.”
She “has never been more lithe and deadly,” Rose wrote, describing her 1996 performance as the wife in August Strindberg’s “Dance of Death” at the Arena. “Her dark eyes gleam with battle lust — or is it madness? — and even when she droops in apparent defeat she’s tensed to spring, a combination cobra and Siamese cat.”
Ms. Hicken’s final role, at the Studio last year, was as a socialist grandmother in Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles.”
Tana Val Hicken was born in Gadsden, Ala., on June 27, 1944, and grew up near Boston. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a painter.
“I grew up on the notion,” she told The Post, “that . . . you found what you loved and you dedicated yourself to it.”
She was interested in drama from a young age and studied theater at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1967.
She came to Washington in part to participate in civil rights and other protests here. When Arena Stage invited her to join a production — by learning two roles in three days — she recalled that she used one of the days to plan an anti-Vietnam War rally.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, she acted in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Hartford, Conn., and Baltimore, as well as at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, before returning to perform frequently in Washington.
Her first marriage, to the actor Anthony Heald, ended in divorce. Survivors include her husband of 42 years, Donald Hicken, and their daughter, Caitlin Bell, both of Sparks; her mother, Evangeline Hicken of Cockeysville, Md.; a sister; and a grandson.
“I wanted to be an actor,” Ms. Hicken told The Post last year, reflecting on her career. “I wanted to do transformations.”