TAMPA — Susan Hussey always reminded me of a character in a play. One of those plucky tomboy types you find in musicals, say, like Laurey in Oklahoma!; or one of Chekhov's drolly elegant heroines, like Madame Ranevskaya, the deposed aristocrat of The Cherry Orchard.
I saw Ms. Hussey and her husband, Aubrey Hampton, whenever I went to review plays at Gorilla Theatre, which they founded in 1990 and operated in a Drew Park warehouse since 1998. The company was a labor of love that the couple underwrote generously with money they made from Aubrey Organics, Hampton's business whose products are a staple in health food stores. Ms. Hussey started as a temp and worked her way up to vice president for marketing and advertising.
Ms. Hussey and Hampton seemed to be at Gorilla for every performance, seated in the front row, often wearing stylish evening clothes, usually with a glass of wine. The theater was their baby, and they built a loyal audience with daring productions.
Offbeat musicals like Falsettos, Side Show and The Last Five Years had Tampa Bay premieres at Gorilla. Thoughtful works by Wallace Shawn, George Bernard Shaw, Alan Bennett and other important playwrights were the rule. On the eve of the first Iraq War, Gorilla joined theaters around the world to perform simultaneously Aristophanes' antiwar play Lysistrata.
But the play I remember most vividly was by Ms. Hussey herself, The Dressing Room, a tender but tough-minded portrait of a drag queen dying of AIDS in 1993. It and another Hussey play, The Toxic Wave, were later published by the University of Tampa Press.
Ms. Hussey, born in Martinsville, Ind., was a graduate of Indiana University and the University of South Florida, where she received a master's degree in English literature in 1984. She had an eclectic resume, including five years as a magician's assistant with a circus. It was an experience she put to good use with Hampton, an amateur magician. "They had an act they would do in which Aubrey would levitate Susan between two chairs," said Michele Young, former managing director of Gorilla.
Ms. Hussey was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, not long after giving birth to her and Aubrey's son, Trevor, now 6. She wrote about her ordeal with the disease in two essays in Organica magazine (organicanews.com).
The last play Ms. Hussey attended at Gorilla was Six Degrees of Separation in December. "She had chemotherapy that day and still went to the theater that night," said her friend Silvia Curbelo.
Ms. Hussey died Wednesday at 54. Ironically, but appropriately given her devotion to the theater, Gorilla was featured in a story Thursday in the St. Petersburg Times about the surprising success of small theater companies in the economic downturn.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.