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Hooray for Hilferty!

Filichia remembers a time when award-winning costumer Susan Hilferty had designs on the acting profession. logo

Kerry O'Malley and Stephen DeRosa
in Into the Woods
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
So glad to see that Susan Hilferty won one of the American Theatre Wing's Hewes Design Awards for her Into the Woods costumes. Isn't it interesting that Hilferty lost the Best Costumes Tony -- which, of course, only involves Broadway shows -- but in the Wing's Awards, where her competition included Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway work by 60 other designers, she won?

I've known Susan since 1969, when I was a teacher and she was a junior at Arlington High School in Arlington, Massachusetts. She was appearing as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Well, not Hippolyta, really; I was asked by the drama club's director to do an updated version, where the fairies would be hippies. Thus, Hilferty charmingly played a character I called Rhoda Rooter. (Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.)

She got a much better role the following year: Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth. Frank Roberts -- whom I mentioned recently as the man who wisely predicted that I'd someday like Follies -- was doing his first mainstage show at the school and perhaps was naive in choosing this extraordinarily difficult play. But Susan was its epicenter and she made it work.

The year after that, Susan was astonishing in the title role of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Granted, as William Goldman says in The Season, "Any actress who plays this role is going to get screams at the final curtain," but Susan sure got them. (By the way: One of the kids who played one of Miss Brodie's students was Jan Leslie Harding, who went on to have a New York acting career and won an Obie. Susan would win an Obie, too, in 1999-2000, "for sustained excellence in costume design.")

I directed Susan once, in "Visitor from Forest Hills," the third play of Plaza Suite. She was terrific in the role from the very first reading. Even now, when I watch the Hollywood film version and see Lee Grant in the part, I hear Susan's voice. Of course, some of that is because I heard her do the show dozens of times in rehearsals and in performance, but some of it is because Susan had a real grasp on the character. Honest, she was better than Grant.

Claudia Shear in Dirty Blonde
I do believe that if Susan had stayed with acting, she would have had a performing trophy or two on her mantle by now. But, during her years at Yale, she opted for costume design and has done awfully well in that area: Dirty Blonde, Sex and Longing, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, and the revivals of How to Succeed and The Night of the Iguana. All in all, over 200 productions in professional theaters ranging from sea to shining sea. For Athol Fugard, she has not only designed costumes but also sets -- and she has been his associate director, too.

But what I remember most about Susan occurred before a rehearsal of "Visitor from Forest Hills." I'll never forget that day I came into the room, and there she was, reading a copy of Life magazine. Suddenly she saw something on a page that moved her. "Oh! Will you look at this adorable little boy," she said before turning the magazine around and showing it to me. The picture at once surprised and delighted me, because the child was black. It was the first time I'd ever seen a white teen take delight in a black face, and while that shouldn't be an extraordinary thing, for me, in 1970, it was. No wonder that Sue should have connected so well with anti-apartheid pioneer Fugard. I have a feeling there will be many more awards before Susan Hilferty's career is done.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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