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Finding Her Inner Hedda

Larkin Warren is a New York City freelance writer

Richard Burton’s daughter has her father’s blue eyes, her mother’s indomitable spirit and (oddly) her stepmother’s bordering-on-bawdy laugh.

When Kate Burton laughs, a big, openhearted La Liz chortle ricochets around the room. Right up until Sept. 11 (in particular on Sept. 10, which was her birthday), Burton was laughing a lot--because life, she readily admits, was going along very nicely, thank you. Married (to Michael Ritchie, artistic director-producer of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires), and mom to a young son and daughter, Burton was in rehearsal for the Broadway opening in October of the Jon Robin Baitz adaptation of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler"--and for the first time in her life, the theater marquee would feature her name above the play’s title.

“It was pretty heady stuff,” she says quietly. “And then everything changed.”

Two months after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Burton is back to what passes these days for normal. Even Broadway stars have to help their sons with homework. But like many New Yorkers, she often finds herself occupying two time zones at once--before and after. “I was being interviewed awhile ago,” she says, “and the reporter kept trying to steer me away from talking about what had happened. I said no, no, you don’t understand, everything’s changed. Nothing exists outside this context now.”

Burton has had some experience in sorrow--although nothing, she quickly says, that comes anywhere near what the World Trade Center survivors and rescuers have suffered. In 1963, when Richard Burton left wife Sybil for his “Cleopatra” co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, the international tabloid ink ran like water. Kate was 6 years old; her little sister, Jessica, then 2, had recently been diagnosed as profoundly autistic and soon after would have to be institutionalized. “Can’t say much for their timing,” Kate says wryly.

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It was an early lesson in the vagaries of the human heart, although she was too young then, Burton acknowledges, to understand what the grown-ups were going through--it was just the way her life was. Born in Switzerland, she spent time in Wales and London with parents, stepparents, and a large extended family. She maintained toothbrushes in Los Angeles and New York, and visited her father on international film sets.

Since becoming an actress herself, she has performed in theater productions and films around the world. “I love L.A., it’s so much fun to be there. I even love those long days on a set waiting for something, anything, to happen--I spent some of the happiest days of my childhood watching my dad do exactly that. But I’m a New Yorker,” she says adamantly. “This is home.”

The Broadway production of “Hedda Gabler” reflects six degrees of separation that have defined the actress’ life since childhood. The producing partnership includes Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company (where the play was performed to enthusiastic reviews last spring); Ritchie’s Williamstown Theatre Festival; and Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theatre, co-founded 10 years ago by Burton’s mother, Sybil Christopher, and Emma Walton, one of Kate’s oldest friends. The play’s director, Nicholas Martin, first met Kate in 1982 when he played the Dormouse to her Alice in Wonderland, a TV production in which Richard Burton played the White Knight.

The Hedda role was suggested to the actress early one Christmas morning by her husband and her mother. Burton admits to having been dumbfounded. “I sat there in my pajamas--I think they were flannel--with my mouth open,” she says. “Hedda’s such a dark and tortured character. I’m usually the sweet wife. Or the sweet dead wife.”

It was never Kate Burton’s dream to do Ibsen; he seemed cold and unapproachable to her. Besides, she’d always been a “Chekhov girl,” she says, a lover of all things Russian, which led to an undergraduate degree from Brown University in Russian studies. “I’d gone to the U.N. School in New York,” she says. “I thought I wanted to be a diplomat.” Her father, however, wanted her to be a writer. The twelfth of 13 children, Richard Burton insisted that his journey out of an impoverished Welsh childhood was due not to acting but to books. “He read one a day,” his daughter remembers. “He knew the best writers of his time, he revered literature, writing was the highest ambition he could wish for me. Finally I had to tell him, ‘Guess what, Dad, I can’t write to save my life!”’

After graduation from Brown, Burton headed for the Yale School of Drama, where Jane Kaczmarek (“Malcolm in the Middle”) was a roommate and Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Wonder Boys”) was a classmate. “We were the most vicious fencers,” she says now. “The very first week, one woman with wild punk hair, in high-tops, picked up a rapier and brandished it like she really meant business. Oohhh, we said, who’s that? And of course it was Fran.”

Years later, a blind date Burton arranged for Kaczmarek and actor Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”), then her co-star in “Measure for Measure” at Lincoln Center, resulted in marriage. She was, she gleefully admits, a bridesmaid. Burton’s time at Yale coincided with director Lloyd Richards’ first years there. By temperament, training and legacy, the actress seemed slated for the classics. “And I loved them,” she says. “But I wanted to do the contemporary stuff too--what was happening around us then was electrifying. Charles Dutton was there. Angela Bassett, David Alan Grier, August Wilson. One day I even asked Lloyd, a little pathetically, I guess, ‘How about something for me in August’s work?”’ Ultimately, she did Ibsen, “and very badly. I just didn’t get it back then. But as in all things, you get older ... and you get it. Now, I get it.”

Burton’s path to Hedda’s parlor has included years of theater (on, off-, off-off Broadway and in Los Angeles at the Doolittle and the Taper) regular TV stints (including a recurring role on ABC’s “The Practice”), many audio books (“it’s really the purest form of what I do”) and numerous film roles. None put her name in lights, but most have been respectably received--save one, 1996’s Anthony Hopkins-directed film “August,” an “Uncle Vanya” set in Wales.

“Janet Maslin said I was ‘unwatchable,”’ Burton says. It’s a wince-making memory--she usually doesn’t read reviews. The ones for “Hedda” have been generally quite fine, as have Burton’s notices in particular. A handful of critics, however (notably New York magazine’s John Simon), have shredded her and the production at large, indicting Baitz’s contemporary adaptation as a co-conspirator.

Nevertheless, Burton tries to keep the wall up between her and the reviews. “My father taught me not to pay attention,” she says. “He said it changed things for an actor. You put too much stock in the good ones; the bad ones make you want to quit. Ultimately, you just have to make your own decisions and take responsibility for them.” The timing, says Emma Walton, is perfect. “Everything Kate is, everything she’s done, has led to this moment--her wisdom about her family’s history, her strength in her marriage and children, the strong-woman role models she grew up with. This is a serious play, in a serious time. But she’s prepared for it. And a good thing too, because the role can be scary.”

Hedda’s father, the equally scary General Gabler, raised his daughter as he would have a son, says Burton--the guns, the horses, the straight-ahead, no-frills behavior, with no value put on emotion and no quarter given.

“Once Hedda grows up, especially in that era, she’s a fish out of water,” she says. “Even married to respectable Tesman, literally, there’s no place for a woman like her. No place. Once she truly comprehends that, well ... all hell breaks loose.”

Annette Bening portrayed Baitz’s Hedda in a critically well-received Geffen Playhouse production in 1999. “Most women,” she said then, “have a bit of Hedda Gabler in them.” Burton (who confessed last spring that there was “a little Elizabeth in my Hedda,”) agrees with Bening and cautiously goes a step further. “You know, in an odd way, Hedda’s a sort of a terrorist herself,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “She’s of a kind with people who believe that it’s heroic, not destructive, to live and act in an absolutist fashion. To not let weakness or humanity in. Before, I had a way of playing this part; now, there are images and thoughts I’m using that I never would’ve used before.”

L’affaire “Cleopatra” broke in 1963, surpassing the previous generation’s Ingrid Bergman-Roberto Rossellini debacle andsetting the standard for theClinton-Lewinsky-Ryan-Quaid-Cruise-Kidman follies. Elizabeth Taylor became Kate’s stepmother; in time, they developed a loving relationship, which continues today.

Sybil Burton remarried too. Jordan Christopher was an actor and rock musician who fronted a New York band called the Wild Ones--it was their version of “Wild Thing” that was appropriated by the Troggs and sat on the ‘60s charts for weeks on end. The Christophers, with partner Roddy McDowell, opened the disco Arthur (in tribute to George Harrison’s haircut), which quickly became the It destination for the era’s hip and famous. Upstairs, the partners developed the New Theater, a repertory company.

“I’d go over there after school to do my homework in my mother’s office,” Kate remembers, “and walk past the famous shellacked wall-autographed head shots and candids of everybody who came in. Twiggy, the Beatles, half of Hollywood. Once when we were in London, John Lennon called my mother--and she handed me the phone. I thought I’d drop through the floor!”

Emma Walton, daughter of Julie Andrews (Richard Burton’s Guinevere in the Broadway production of “Camelot”) and famed set designer Tony Walton, was often in Kate’s company in those days, as she is in these. It was an atmosphere of bohemian joy and creativity, balanced with a specific sort of British order, the same kind “that went on at my house,” Walton says. “Brush your teeth, do your homework, make your bed, don’t get too big for your britches, pay no attention to the photographers in the bushes.”

New life notwithstanding, the brutally public breakup transformed Sybil’s life, Kate admits, and profoundly affected her own. “I grew up witnessing two marriages,” she says. “One that floundered repeatedly, no matter how passionately they loved each other, and one that only grew stronger and wiser, even with setbacks and sorrows. Jordan struggled with addiction too, but he won--my mother was his champion. For Elizabeth and my father, booze was the third party in the marriage. That’s just how strong it was.”

Her father and Taylor divorced, married again, divorced again, and went on to marry and divorce others. Sybil and Jordan Christopher stayed together until his death six years ago. Richard Burton died in 1984 at 58, just weeks after he and Kate, then 26, worked together in the miniseries “Ellis Island,” their only collaboration after “Alice.”

There isn’t a day she doesn’t think of him; the Ibsen opening was particularly acute for his absence. “He had terrible insomnia,” she remembers. “When he was in New York doing ‘Private Lives’ and I was in ‘Winners,’ we’d occasionally meet at the fridge at 4 a.m. for chocolate. I think that’s when he must’ve done his reading, during those long nights.”

She remains in touch with all the half-siblings and step-siblings and the not-quite-siblings; one of her dearest friends is Liza Todd, Elizabeth’s daughter with Mike Todd. “Basically, I’m part of this large, creative, mildly crazy, loosely connected loving family,” she says, laughing. “But really, these days, who isn’t?”

When Broadway went back to work, there were a few shaky moments of “What are we doing here?” shared by the “Hedda” company and other productions. But the lights are definitely on now--audiences are back. As the holidays approach, the reservations are coming in.

“You can feel it in the theaters, and out on the streets too,” Burton says. In fact, in spite of anthrax scares, false-alarm bomb threats, and the American Airlines crash, most of the city and many of its guests seem to have embraced a London-Blitz-business-as-usual demeanor. “I have to believe that the city is discovering things about itself in the middle of this horror, things that will sustain us over time. Generosity, compassion, patience.” Then she backs off a little.

“Well, patience ... I dunno. I lost my temper in traffic today, and I thought, ‘Hey, does this mean I’m getting better?”’ *

*

“Hedda Gabler,” Ambassador Theater, 215 W. 49th St., New York. Through Jan. 13. For more information, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200.


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