It's just a little family drama Profession: Caitlin Bell has become education director at Everyman Theatre, where her father, Donald Hicken, directs her mother Tana Hicken in 'The Lion in Winter.' NTC

October 05, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"What family doesn't have its ups and downs?" Eleanor of Aquitaine says in James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter." The Hicken family, however, is definitely in an up cycle these days.

Donald Hicken, head of the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts, has directed the production of "The Lion in Winter" that opens at Everyman Theatre Friday). His wife, Tana Hicken, who spent 15 years as a company member at Washington's Arena Stage, stars as Eleanor. And their daughter, Caitlin Bell, fresh out of graduate school at New York University, is Everyman's very first education director.

Although husband and wife, and father and daughter, have teamed up occasionally over the years, this is the first time all three have worked together. Watching their easy rapport one afternoon last week in Everyman's lobby, it was clear that, unlike the back-stabbing family of Henry II in Goldman's play, the Hicken clan shares a warm bond. They've even been living in the same house, in the Evergreen neighborhood in north Baltimore, although last weekend Caitlin moved to an apartment two doors away.

Caitlin was born when her parents were working at the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut, 26 years ago. (Her surname, Bell, is her father's legal name; he began using his wife's name professionally at the start of his career because there was another Equity actor named Donald Bell.)

"At Hartford Stage, she was literally sleeping in drawers in the costume department as an infant," recalls Donald.

Caitlin's career in theater education is, in many ways, a combination of her parents' work and backgrounds. Donald enjoyed a touch of father-daughter collaboration when Caitlin consulted him while compiling Everyman's study guide.

Tana, who has been visiting Everyman's three outreach high schools -- Walbrook, Western and Southwestern -- with her daughter, says she especially appreciated Caitlin's suggestion that she stay in character during these sessions, answering the students' questions as Eleanor. Even so, at least once, Caitlin slipped up and called her "Mom," much to the surprise of the students.

"Caitlin has brought me back to seeing my work through the eyes of a young person," says Tana. "This has been a great joy."

"The Lion in Winter" is a co-production of the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring and Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., where it opens Friday. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2: 30 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 1. Tickets are $12-$15, with a pay-what-you-can preview this Wednesday. Call 410-752-2208.

Glorious return

Arena Players' 46th season is off to a good start -- and not just in terms of its rousing production of the 1970 musical "Purlie." The theater, whose financial problems threatened its existence only three seasons ago, is back on the plus side of the ledger with all of its creditors paid, according to board chairman Edward Smith Jr.

You notice the fruits of solvency as soon as you walk on the new carpeting, sit on the refurbished theater seats or look over the flier for the expanded, seven-play season. And, appropriately, the first show in the redecorated theater is about a man who realizes his dream.

Based on Ossie Davis' play, "Purlie Victorious," the musical -- book by Davis, Philip Rose and Peter Udell; score by Udell and Gary Geld -- is about an aspiring preacher who plots to get the money to buy a church by tricking the racist owner of the Georgia plantation where his family has toiled since slavery.

The plot is silly and rather involved, but it leaves room for spirited performances on the part of director Ed Terry's able cast.

Watching Oliver Cooper's rafter-raising preaching or smooth singing in the title role, you'd never know he stepped into the part with less than the usual rehearsal time when the original lead actor ran into scheduling problems.

As Purlie's countrified love interest, Vanessa Stewart has a strong stage presence and the voice to match. Sylvia Hardison, as Purlie's sister-in-law, is also a powerful vocalist, and James Nathan Jones is amusing as her buffoonish husband. Musical director and accompaniest William Griggsby also deserves praise.

The beginning and end of "Purlie" take the form of a church service, and when Arena's 20-member ensemble breaks into "Walk Him Up the Stairs," the hymn launches a production that comes as close to glory as anything this theater has produced in several seasons. Think of it as Arena Victorious.

"Purlie" continues at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., at 8: 30 p.m. Friday, 7: 30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $21. Call 410-728-6500.

Old name, new company

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