Sunday, February 06, 2000

'Wit' role under her skin

Area's premier actress plays cancer patient in Playhouse version of off-Broadway sensation

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As a young actress fresh from her native Great Britain, Dale Hodges stormed New York in 1972 with considerable success. Among her roles, she understudied and played on Broadway in shows such as Equus and Benefactors. Some years later, she found herself divorced, with a small child, and she knew New York “wasn't the place I wanted to grow old.”

Dale Hodges gets her head shaved for her role as an overian cancer patient.
(Jeff Swinger photos)
  Ms. Hodges wrote Dale's Holey Bonnet 1, a tongue-in-cheek farewell to her tresses, in the style of John Donne's Holy Sonnet 3:
  This is my hair's last scene, now they appoint
  A barbarous assistant, and each tress
  So fondly worn, coiffured or a mess
  Shall feel the razor's edge; their shears disjoint
  With artificial poll, so I'll not freeze apace.
  But my e'er wakeful glass shall see that face
  Whose fear already shakes my every joint,
  Forcing my eyes to contemplate the sight,
  That shining dome, wherein the master cell,
  With free will granted, ponders wrong from right,
  Lest sinful pride consign my soul to hell.
  Then hairless I, lost vanities well mourned,
  Closer to heav'n will be, thus unadorned.
        Life took some more twists and turns, and in 1988 she moved to Cincinnati to “allow myself the possibility of change” with a new partner (husband David Logan), a stepson and her own child. “And I hoped to make a modest living at my craft.”

        Twelve years later, Ms. Hodges is the region's premier actress. For the next few weeks she is onstage at Playhouse in the Park starring in Wit, last season's off-Broadway sensation that won a Pulitzer Prize for its author, Margaret Edson. This is the first time a local actress has had a Playhouse lead since Pam Myers in Sweeney Todd three years ago.

        Ms. Hodges plays Vivian Bearing, uncompromising and dispassionate professor and scholar of 17th century metaphysical poetry. When she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the professor becomes a student — of how to live in the alien world of health care while she undergoes experimental cancer treatment, as well as how to live in her own human skin.

        Looking back on her decade of life in the theater Cincinnati-style, she says, “it's been pretty good.” She says this in a clipped British accent that has remained intact, although the same can't be said for her mane of ash blond hair. Her head has been shaved for the Wit role.

        “The timing's been right, and you can't say enough about timing.”

        Local artistic directors will tell you timing and luck have nothing to do with it.

        Ms. Hodges has long been a fixture of Playhouse's annual A Christmas Carol. She's been onstage at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati in such plays as Caryl Churchill's The Skriker and current season opener Side Man. She even directed ETC's first holiday pantomime more than 10 years ago.

        “Amazing. Incredible. Extraordinary.” So says Ed Stern, Playhouse producing artistic director and director of Wit.

        “Her integrity and commitment to her craft is so strong that she fills in all the spaces in a character. She makes us believe because she believes,” says ETC producing artistic director D. Lynn Meyers.

        Ms. Hodges, if all goes well, will go straight from Wit to ETC's The Cripple of Inishmaan. A tightly squeezed rehearsal schedule became tighter when sell-out Wit was extended for a week.

        Then it's straight to her Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival debut in May in Coriolanus.

        Ms. Hodges' acting range, notes festival producing artistic director Jasson Minadakis, is “remarkable.”

        Wit has been an emotional as well as a theatrical exercise. Research has included meetings with oncologists, an oncological nurse, a breast cancer survivor. There was a trip to a cancer center to talk to ovarian cancer patients and a conversation with a John Donne scholar.

        “The preparation has been intense,” Ms. Hodges says, “and in a play of this kind, none of it is too much. Part of what makes it necessary is the veracity — to find an authenticity for skills and experiences you don't have.

        “Even more, it affects your soul.”

        Ms. Hodges first ran across Wit in a review from a pre-Broadway tryout and after that the title kept cropping up. Friends would tell her the role would be perfect for her.

        Mr. Stern invited her to audition. If he hadn't, Ms. Hodges says, “I would have asked him.

        “When you've been in the theater for more than 25 years, you know which is your role and which isn't and what you have the right to ask for. It's one of the few advantages of getting older.”

        Going bald, notes Ms. Hodges, has been a learning experience.

        Son Sebastian, now at Boston University, “said, "Mom, this is a great exercise in dis-attachment,' ” she laughs.

        Ms. Hodges has two wigs, bought on shopping excursions with Playhouse wig mistress Kelly Yurko. And lots of knitted caps have been coming her way.

        During rehearsal, her hair would gather a couple of days' growth and “the bristles (would) stick to woolly things.” For the run of the show, that won't be happening. Ms. Hodges will be getting fresh shaves almost daily.

        When the cap is off, Ms. Hodges says, “I don't normally try to attract attention to myself off-stage, although I am a gregarious person. I don't like having people look at me in a funny way.

        “I have to consider each day what I do about that.”

        She also finds herself deciding what to do about putting strangers at ease. Most of them, she suspects, believe she is undergoing cancer treatment. “I realized I don't want to worry people.”

        She also finds herself being more scrupulous about wearing makeup. “And I look at other women more, and mentally measure the length of their hair and estimate how long it will take mine to grow out” for the different styles.

        Ms. Hodges doesn't know what will follow this rush of spring work. That's what makes it a “modest” living. “I had a spell of two years with no work,” she notes.

        She has made some excursions beyond Cincinnati for professional summer stock, and even done voice work (by telephone) for Chicago. About the time that Wit ends its run, now extended through March 11, she'll be watching for announcements of the 2000-2001 local theater season, and seeing if anything fits.

        “You're still only as good as your last job,” she says with a practicality earned over decades. “The first rule for an actor is you never take anything for granted.”

        • What: Wit

        • When: 7 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through March 11. (Note one-week extension).

        • Where: Playhouse in the Park Shelterhouse

        • Tickets: Previews (through Wednesday) $24.50; Feb. 10-March 12, $31.50-$39.50. 421-3888 or (800) 582-3208.

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