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Mother of All Roles : Actress’ Love of Family a Key to Her Work

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Family is very important to Sada Thompson.

She doesn’t mean “Family,” the television show for which she won an Emmy for playing Kate Lawrence, possibly the ultimate in TV’s long line of strong yet eternally understanding mothers.

She means her own family--her husband, Don Stewart, to whom she will have been married for 42 years in December, and her daughter, Liza, a Los Angeles-based costume designer. She credits their encouragement for the success she has had in more than 40 years as a Tony and Obie-award-winning actress.

And she credits her current pleasure in her work in regional theaters to her theatrical family--especially Jack O’Brien, artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre, who first directed her as the courtesan in “The Comedy of Errors,” the very first show for each of them at the Globe in 1969.

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She also sees her love of family as key to her upcoming performance in “The Show-Off,” George Kelly’s 1924 comedy that opens Thursday at the Globe under O’Brien’s direction.

The show is about a woman who loves her children but detests her irritating, braggart son-in-law, who will be played here by Don Sparks. Thompson acknowledges that she had “mixed feelings” after first reading the script sent to her by O’Brien. But “I grew to love it more and more,” she said.

“I’ve learned about how deeply she feels about her family,” Thompson said of her role as Mrs. Fisher during a recent interview between rehearsals at the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage.

“She’s very deeply attached to her family. She yells and screams at her children, but she adores them, they’re the center of her life, along with her husband. She’s the queen bee of her domain, but her world is very small.”

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Thompson, 63, seems like a person who does not care much for surfaces. Her hair is gray, her makeup nonexistent, her clothing for the interview a simple, dark pantsuit. But, although she does not exude glamour, neither does she invite undue familiarity. She is punctual, and although she answers questions graciously, she does not offer information.

O’Brien chalks up her interviewing demeanor to her “Yankee reserve.”

“She has that sense of propriety and strength, and she doesn’t give that away. It’s all very contained and proper and dignified,” he said.

But, as her close friend and her director, O’Brien says he sees another side of her.

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“I think that she’s secretly crazy, and I mean that in the most delightful way. Sada is an incredibly passionate and sensual woman, which is something you don’t necessarily think of with her. She’s possessed by more than the usual number of demons and has a glorious streak of madness in her.”

William Anton, who played her son in “Driving Miss Daisy” in the San Diego production and now plays her other, preferred son-in-law in “The Show-Off,” almost gushes when describing Thompson.

“Sada is really, really approachable, and you see that from young junior members of the company, to people who have known her for years,” he said. “She’s got a tremendous sense of humor, she’s a helluva human being, and so is her husband, and I love them both to death.

“This is a piece specifically about this woman (Mrs. Fisher) and certainly a piece for Sada. In other hands that would certainly be something that could distance a company. But that has not happened at all.”

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Thompson, who lives in Connecticut, was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and moved with her family to Fenwood, N.J., when she was 5. She fell in love with theater when she turned 12 and saw a friend perform in a drama class. “I was so thrilled by it, I begged my parents to let me take lessons,” she recalled.

Her fascination with her chosen profession never wavered. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the drama department at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon) in Pittsburgh, where she met her husband.

Her husband, now a retired systems analyst for Pan Am, also wanted to be an actor--at first. They started their marriage with a pact that, each year, they would take turns acting and supporting the other. Thompson started with her year of acting, but when she finished, her husband, seeing her struggles, told her he didn’t want to perform anymore. With his blessing, Thompson persevered.

Though Thompson has played many mothers in her long career, she has never played one as embattled as Mrs. Fisher. Still, she feels a familiarity with the character. She believes the playwright, an Irishman from Philadelphia (and favorite uncle of the late Princess Grace of Monaco), was writing about his own family, but Mrs. Fisher also reminds her of her own grandmother.

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“My mother’s mother was first-generation Irish, and she had the same sense of humor,” she said.

O’Brien, in a separate interview, said his own grandmother also was much like Mrs. Fisher: She had “that flinty, salty, no bull . . . way of thinking, that blunt affection, like a fist,” he said.

The role of Mrs. Fisher is among the longest ever written for a woman; O’Brien calls it “a work-out, a tour de force.” The play has three acts of more than 40 minutes each, and the actress is on stage, talking almost constantly. She, more than anyone else, is the one who must bring to dramatic and comic life a classic in-law conflict.

O’Brien said he has loved the play ever since he worked with the now-defunct Assn. of Producing Artists Repertory on its 1967 revival, for which he served as “everybody’s assistant, janitor, dog watcher, coffee runner.” That production became a showcase for the late Helen Hayes--it was a triumphant and lavishly reviewed farewell vehicle for her. This production clearly revolves around Thompson, whom O’Brien says is even better than Hayes in the part.

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“They’re completely different instruments,” O’Brien said of the two actresses. “Miss Hayes was a little chippy, ferrety Irish biddy at full tilt. Sada is a force of nature. Sada is not only a brilliant comedienne, but she has vast Jacobian resources. Her reading is much more complex than Miss Hayes’ was, and revelatory. I’m not slighting Miss Hayes, it was one of the greatest roles she has played, but Sada has found more shadows and higher highs and lower lows than Miss Hayes plumbed. She also brings that expectation of motherliness that we all associate with Sada, she presses that button that says yes, my mother/grandmother/wife is just like that.”

“I would have not done (the show) if not for Sada,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien, who describes himself as one of the actress’ greatest fans, named her an associate artist of the Old Globe Theatre in 1984; she has done seven shows here, most notably “The Skin of Our Teeth,” which was televised live for PBS’ American Playhouse in 1983, “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1989 and “Love Letters” in 1990--all directed by O’Brien.

“I’ve always wanted her to play this part. I’ve always felt this would be a great vehicle for her when she was ready. She is one of our major talents, and I would have waited until she wanted to do it.”

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Thompson has had much acclaim in her long career, but most of it of a kind that has made her more treasured among fellow professionals than famous.

Anton said Thompson teaches by example. “When you’re around great actors (like Thompson), they become an ideal or a goal that keeps reminding you of the quality you want your work to be.”

Thompson won a Tony 20 years ago for playing four different characters in “Twigs.” But her breakthrough show came a year before that, in 1970, when she played in Paul Zindel’s “The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” for which she won her second Obie (she won her first in the Lincoln Center production of “Tartuffe” in 1965).

Fame came to her nearly 30 years into her career when, from 1976 to 1980, she played the mother in the television series “Family,” for which she won an Emmy in 1978. And her most recent television role was a guest part as Carla’s mother in “Cheers.”

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Thompson said she sees “The Show-Off” as a challenge.

“It’s a great part, and it’s a remarkable play,” she said. When asked about the seemingly simple story-line, she shook her head at the simple-mindedness of the question.

“Synopses are nothing,” she said with emphasis on the “nothing.”

“When people ask me what a play is about, it dismays me. On the surface this play is about nothing, but it’s really about everything. It’s about tremendous social upheaval and domestic upheaval and how these people respond to it. It’s about great artistry--it’s dramatic, it’s very sad, and it’s very funny--just like life.”

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Thompson said she looks forward to surprising audiences with her sharp-tongued Mrs. Fisher, even as she explores this new role.

“I like playing all types, and this woman (Mrs. Fisher) is as unbred as you can get.”

Even after all these years in the profession, the thrill of discovery keeps her interested, she said.

“When you start off acting, it does seem very romantic, and the make-believe part of it all seems very exciting. It’s only later that you begin to realize how fascinating the work is--that it’s a bottomless pit, and you never get to the end of it. Human character is just endlessly fascinating, and there is no character who is one thing any more than any one person is just one thing. As you work on a character, he/she is revealed more and more. That’s what I continue to love about the work.”

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Performances of “The Show-Off,” opening Thursday, will be at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays with Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2, through Oct. 6. At the Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, 239-2255.


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