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Friday, November 24 News

Applause / The many faces of Mia Dillon

Call it “The Many Faces of Mia Dillon.” In her career, the Fairfield actress has portrayed a would-be husband killer, a cantankerous British official, a murderous old lady, a nutty novice and a sluttish Welsh seductress, among others. A Tony and Drama Desk Award nominee, winner of the prestigious Clarence Derwent Award and honored with an outstanding actress accolade from the Connecticut Critics Circle, she’s currently at Hartford Stage in the world premiere of “Seder” as a beset Hungarian mother who once worked for the AVO, that country’s secret police.

Sarah Gancher’s “Seder,” set in Budapest in 2002, is a dark comedy that interweaves what should be a joyous meal (the Seder celebrates Passover, the holiday marking the Jews’ deliverance from Egyptian bondage) with memories of an uncomfortable past. Despite its political underpinnings, “Seder” is, above all, a family drama with arguments and tensions familiar to all who gather for holiday meals.

We spoke with Dillon by phone during the production’s preview week. Pleading an understandable exhaustion, she nevertheless waxed enthusiastic about “Seder,” her role and the work’s fascinating background for which she did a lot of research.

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“Seder” is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through Nov. 12. Call 860-527-5151 or visit hartfordstage.org.

“My character, Erziske, is a Holocaust survivor,” she began. ”A lot of Jews did survive in Hungary which allied with Germany in the first part of the war, but was not occupied until the year before the end of the conflict. When Hitler invaded in March, 1944, he dispatched Nazis to purge the nation of Jews, transporting hundreds of thousands to concentration camps.

The conquering Russians finally arrived later that year. Dillon’s character aligned herself with the winning side, becoming a devout Communist. In 1956, a popular uprising tried to kick out the Soviets. Although spurred by the western powers, the uprising failed. (The British were busy invading the Suez Canal that week.)

“But that’s all background,” said Dillon. “It’s really a family drama about the mother, Erzsike, her daughters and son. One daughter is hosting a Seder for an American who lives in her apartment complex. Meanwhile, the older daughter and her mother have not seen each other in 13 years.”

In the play, which is based on fact, Erzsike, who had survived the war by becoming a low-level secretary for one of the biggest AVO torturers, maintains she tried to save people by altering records. Nor, she claims, did she know about the pain and anguish happening near where she worked. “I heard no screams,” says Dillon’s character. “But does that relieve you of responsibility?” asks the actress.

After the war, the government opened the House of Terror as a museum and memorial. Among its gruesome exhibits is one of photos in the basement where prisoners were interrogated and tortured. It’s called the Wall of Murderers. In the play, Erzsike’s photo is among them, the sight of which sends the estranged daughter reeling.

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Born in Colorado, Dillon lived in Iowa then Pennsylvania then New York where she studied theater, following in the footsteps of her father who tried his hand at acting and directing.

At age ten, she auditioned for a local high school’s production of “The Sound of Music” and started playing flute. “I wanted to return the rented instrument to the store after the band director said my mouth was the wrong shape,” she recalled. “The store owner laughed and told my mother, ‘Give me a half hour with her and, if she can’t play the flute by then, you can return it.’ It worked and I became first chair in fifth grade. I also played flute in a film called ‘The Money Pit,’ where I was another Hungarian.”

Another talent is as a licensed acupuncturist with an M.S. degree from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. But acting is her main occupation, appearing on TV and screen, as well as on stage, several times with husband Keir Dullea. Of her Tony-nominated performance in the Pulitzer Prize winning “Crimes of the Heart,” Times critic Frank Rich raved she was “priceless.”

“Good material is exciting to work on,” observed Dillon “It doesn’t matter if it’s a drama or a comedy. If it’s really well written, it’s a joy to play.”

In “Seder,” Dillon’s character is a survivor to herself, a monster to her daughter. “I have this beautiful line in the play to my daughter: ‘I know you can’t understand this but, when I was young, I really thought we could build a world where everyone was equal and fed and safe. I thought we had to go through the darkness to get to the light. When I thought about the light, I felt . . . ‘”

The playwright leaves the sentence unfinished. For Mia Dillon, though, the feeling is one of “exaltation.”

“Seder” is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through Nov. 12. Call 860-527-5151 or visit hartfordstage.org.

David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.

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