Arts & Culture

Deborah Hazlett Celebrates 20th Season at Everyman Theatre

The resident actress discusses her latest play "Long Day’s Journey into Night."

Is it surprising to be in your 20th season with Everyman Theatre?
I sometimes feel like Vinny [Lancisi, founding artistic director of Everyman] and I grew up together. In that 20 years, I always came back once a year—always—to do one show. When my husband, James, and I decided to stop moving, we bought a house in Baltimore [in 2016]. I’d been living in D.C., New York, Baltimore, and L.A. since 1988. I’ve lived in all these cities, but my artistic home for all these years has been, well, Vinny, really, and wherever he is. He’s committed to artists and all the people he works with. He has this phrase he always says—“people matter”—and he doesn’t just say it; he lives it. 

Maybe in another theater, you’re afraid to try something. Here, you just go for it. And if it’s a big failure, he says, ‘Thank you for trying!’ He has a strong voice and a strong vision, but he also really lets the actor discover and try and make mistakes. When it comes from the top down, it [becomes] the aesthetic of the workplace. And that’s why I keep coming back.

Is it also important to you that you be part of a resident company?
As a child, I knew what I wanted to do. I was in the third grade and I saw Godspell at Ford’s Theatre in Washington on a family trip from Sumter, South Carolina. I said to my mom, ‘That’s what I’m doing; I want to do that.’ And she got me involved in Sumter Little Theater, which happened to have these extraordinary teachers, Katie Dameron and Jan Taylor. I tried to do some other things—I worked for Congress, for a while; I tried law school—but this was always where my heart was. 

In this business, we’re all independent contractors, but here [at Everyman], we are members of a family that has a work ethic that is similar, that has an artistic voice that has some history, that has the purpose of looking for truth—which is, I think, Vinny’s goal: to tell the truth when you’re onstage. We all trust and love each other and work together to create that, so you don’t have to start at the beginning every time you show up on the first day of rehearsal. I mean, we’re a family—we squabble, we love each other. The gift of the resident company is a common purpose.

It also seems that having an established sense of closeness and an understanding of the dynamics between actors.
Yes, and I’m not afraid! I love these people. So when Bruce Nelson and I play a married couple, we already love each other. He’s married, I’m married—it’s not like that—but the love is there. Beth and I, Megan and I, Dawn and I. So if the love needs to come across, it can; if the hate needs to come across, we trust each other enough to move into that. It’s a huge gift, and one that I really, really value because it can be a brutal business.

How have you evolved as an actor alongside the evolution of Everyman?
The through-line for me is that I have to be after telling the truth, and I’m not much interested in artifice. Even if you’re playing broad style, which I love, you still gotta tell the truth, and that’s what sort of lifts the play. Rather than commenting on what you’re doing, you’re actually doing it, no matter what the character is—how awful they are, how lovely they are. 

Also I’ve learned not to care if the audience likes my character. You gotta let that go. When I was playing Hedda Gabler, this man actually stood up in the audience and yelled at me, ‘You’re a psycho!’ A grown man. [Laughs.] I often play difficult characters. But I love them, I advocate for them. And if I’m doing my job, I’m not trying to make the audience like them either. That’s not telling the truth of the story.

I read that you’re drawn to gritty characters and survival stories.
Well, I know that’s how I get cast. [Laughs.] Over the years, that has been my work. Vinny has recently cast me in some very broad comedy. Talk about being scared out of my mind. But I sort of channeled Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball and I had a blast. I loved every moment of it. And while I was physically tired at the end of the night, I was not emotionally worn out at all. I love comedy, I love comic timing, I love the way it feels. It’s a different game. It’s fun. I’m actually hoping to do more.

But, you know, I’m getting ready to do the play “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” and since I knew who Mary Tyrone was, I’ve wanted to play her, so this is a huge artistic gift for me. My husband and I went to New London, Connecticut, and went to [Eugene O’Neill’s house], and I took my shoes off and walked on the floors and sat in her rocking chair—they’ve preserved it. I felt like I was holding my breath most of the time. You don’t often get to do that kind of research.

What was it about her character that was so enthralling to you?
I understand something about when the pain in your life becomes unbearable, having to do something to survive that. And while I blessedly have never been addicted to morphine or any other drug, I understand something about Ella’s [O’Neill’s mother on whom the character is based] inability to tolerate the circumstances of her life, so that she removes herself. And I’m interested in discovering in rehearsal how it affects the people around her. 

I play characters so often who suffer, and she certainly is suffering, but once she begins to use and remove herself from the suffering, it’s the people around her who suffer. And given what’s happening in our country with opioid addiction, with alcohol addiction—and certainly here in Baltimore, where we are suffering from heroin addiction right around the corner—once someone removes themselves and then are helpless to do anything about it, I think that suffering is sort of universal. And I hope that can be the catharsis with the audience. You don’t have to use morphine to understand the kind of pain that makes you pull in and pull away. Hopefully this play will strike a chord of compassion in the people who see it, for the people around them who are suffering.

Wow. That’s big.
At our best, our work is big. I’ve often, over the years, wondered: should I be a nurse, should I join the Peace Corps, is there something more valuable I can be doing with my life? At the end of “Death of a Salesman,” you could hear men weeping in the audience. When you have that catharsis, I truly believe it can change lives. That is what I’m after. 

Even if people spend two hours laughing together, there’s also that gift of sharing that moment. That exchange with the audience is everything. I’m very passionate about this right now because of what’s going on in the world, because of the divisions, because of the lack of compassion. I think we have to speak to the need to connect and the need to forgive and understand each other. We have to. I’m hoping I can be a part of that.

“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” runs from January 31-March 5.