A Complex Character Actress: In six decades of acting and teaching, Uta Hagen has performed with the Lunts, taught Whoopi Goldberg and learned a thing or two about the stage.

September 18, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It's easy to tell that actress Uta Hagen is an excellent teacher.

She fervently imparts information and opinions on subjects ranging from theater as a religious vocation to blacklisting in the McCarthy era to psychoanalysis.

Described in People magazine earlier this year as "arguably America's greatest living stage actress" and listed in a recent issue of Theater Week as one of the top 10 female stars of the year, Hagen, 77, has never become a household name, probably because she has shunned movies and favored the stage.

Her stage credits read like pages of theater history. She made her Broadway debut at age 18 opposite the Lunts in a production of Chekhov's "The Seagull" (that tried out in Baltimore). She helped break the color barrier in theaters across the country (but not in Baltimore) playing Desdemona to Paul Robeson's Othello. She won one of her two Tony Awards when she created the role of Martha in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

And, in 50 years as a teacher at New York's Herbert Berghof Studio founded by her late husband, Hagen has taught such actors as Jack Lemmon, Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Broderick and the late Geraldine Page.

These days teaching and acting in plays at the HB Playwrights Foundation seem to be the main occupations of this actor's actor, who last performed on Broadway in 1986 and last toured in 1982. But now she's hit the road again, playing the title character in Nicholas Wright's "Mrs. Klein," which opens at Washington's Kennedy Center tomorrow as part of a five-city, post-New York tour.

The character she portrays is the groundbreaking and controversial child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, which brings up the subject of psychoanalysis -- a subject Hagen claims she's wary of.

"To me it does not help an artist. That is the main reason I have balked at it," she says, objecting specifically to what she describes as "over-simplifications, ready, easy answers that make you stop asking questions."

Her resistance to psychology carried over to her research, which consisted solely of reading Phyllis Grosskurth's 1985 biography, "Melanie Klein," on which Wright based the play. She admits she'd never heard of Klein and says, "I jumped over most of the chapters that had to do with her theories and her work because I don't understand it."

There was a time, Hagen explains, when she would wallow in "theoretic, pedantic homework I remember when I did homework on 'Saint Joan,' by the time I was through I wanted to play all the roles that aren't in George Bernard Shaw. You can get so bogged down in research you can lose track of what will feed you in the role."

What was the attraction of "Mrs. Klein," a role Hagen sought ever since the play debuted in London in 1988? (It was also produced at Washington's Arena Stage in 1992.) "She's an unbelievably complex character," the actress says. "She exists on so many levels in that play, to explore that for me was an extraordinary, great adventure."

At the same time, Hagen describes Klein as a "monster" who used her own children as guinea pigs and was "power mad." The play -- which takes place on a night in 1934 when Klein, her grown daughter and a protege grapple over the circumstances of her son's death -- depicts her so negatively, Hagen was dismayed when many of her friends, and her late husband, said she was just right for the part.

In retrospect, this actress, whose credo is to find the humanity in a character, believes, "One reason they said this is because I have never been afraid, never balked, at playing negative things in human beings. The essence of that negativity is in everybody. The essence of unabated egomania is in everybody. I think we learn, or at least I hope I have learned, that my interest in someone else can become greater than my interest in myself."

One of the more painful areas in which she has learned this is her relationship with her daughter, Letty, who chose her mother's profession, as did Klein's daughter, who became a rival psychiatrist. "I would say there is no exact parallel, I hope to God, anywhere in this," prefaces Hagen, while acknowledging she was not a good mother. "My problems were similar to Melanie's in that I had a burning desire to function on my own, and I was terribly young when I had Letty and didn't understand. I literally didn't understand what the job of a mother was. I understood it theoretically, but her emotional needs I coped with very badly. My main fault -- I demanded too much. It took me until Letty was 20 to realize this was a major mistake."

This production of "Mrs. Klein" is somewhat of an HB Studio reunion. Both Amy Wright, who plays Klein's protege, and director William Carden, who is artistic director of the HB Playwrights Foundation, were Hagen's students at the studio. Laila Robins, who plays Klein's daughter and who Center Stage audiences may remember from "The Lady From the Sea," has been a member of the HB faculty.

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