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Playing Off Her Father's Genes : Kate Burton once thought of becoming a diplomat, but her heritage won out.

THEATER

January 12, 1997|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

British playwright Tom Stoppard has a knack for writing dramas riddled with intellectual and linguistic complexities, and many American actors prefer not to tackle that kind of challenge. But for Kate Burton, it's precisely what she craves.

That's why the actress is so pleased to be assaying the part of Hannah Jarvis, one of the chief protagonists in Stoppard's "Arcadia," which opens at the Mark Taper Forum Thursday, directed by Taper producing director Robert Egan.

Well-received in its previous London and New York stagings, "Arcadia" is set on an English country estate in 1809 and in the present day. Two contemporary researchers pore over letters and drawings from the previous century as they try to piece together the past.

The role, says Burton, mirrors her own personal dualities. "I have this real affinity for Hannah," explains the quietly articulate actress, dressed professionally in a black blazer and pants, during a recent conversation at the Taper. "I feel like I understand her frustrations, her passion."

Those frustrations, she says, derive from the tensions between intellect and emotion. "Playing Hannah is challenging because she is a woman who is very bright, and probably quite well-educated, who is always feeling slightly put-upon by the intellectuals in her field," says Burton, who once planned to be a career diplomat.

"That position of being not really an intellectual, but someone who is much more visceral, is very close to my heart," she continues.

Burton is indeed "intuitive, although she's an extremely smart woman," says director Scott Ellis, who cast her in his recent Broadway production of "Company." "She's unbelievably open to exploration and her instincts are really right on.

"Her work onstage is so clean, precise," he continues. "She's a phenomenally fine actress. I would use her over and over again."

In addition to "Company," Burton has appeared on Broadway in "Doonesbury," "Present Laughter," "Jake's Women," "Wild Honey" and more. (She was also seen in the latter two in Los Angeles.) Off-Broadway, she's been in plays by writers ranging from Shakespeare to Brian Friel.

She's well-known at the respected Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where her husband of 11 years, Michael Ritchie, a longtime theater professional, recently became producer.

Burton, 38, has worked often in TV and film. A 1996 Emmy winner for her work in ABC's "Notes for My Daughter," she will be seen later this season in a recurring role in the new ABC/David Kelley series "The Practice." Her latest film role was opposite Anthony Hopkins in his film "August," and she'll soon be on the big screen again in Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm."

Yet despite her credits, Burton, who lives in New York with her husband and 8-year-old son, Morgan, has never fully escaped that for which she's perhaps best-known--for being Richard Burton's daughter.

Once upon a time, she thought she could escape the legacy. "I chose very specifically to stay in the United States [as opposed to Britain] because I thought, 'It's going to be hard enough to be Richard Burton's daughter, but if I'm an American actress and I'm a woman, I'll have my own identity,' " she says.

"I would say, for the most part, that never turned out to be the case."

Born under the authority of the British consulate in Switzerland, Burton moved with her parents to New York when she was 4. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she grew up primarily in the home of her mother, Sybil, in Manhattan.

Yet despite all the publicity attendant on her parents' split, Burton maintains she had a fairly normal childhood. "My childhood really was not that screwed up, actually," she says. "It was a very constant and consistent childhood, and I think that has served me, especially being in such a nutty business."

Like so many kids today, Burton had two households to call her own. "I used to spend a big summer vacation with my father, and Dad would come to New York a lot," says Burton. "I had two little family units, but the one that was really mine was the one with my mom."

Starting in eighth grade, Burton attended the United Nations school in New York, where she developed an interest in Russian literature and culture. "One of the books I was given in school was 'My Childhood' by Gorky," she recalls. "It just affected me in such a profound way. It was like putting on a warm coat."

Her fascination with Russia developed in high school, and when it came time to pick a college, Burton looked for a university with a strong Russian studies program. She chose Brown University, where she majored in European history and Russian studies.

Her plan was to become a diplomat. "I had no intention of going into show business," says Burton. "I'd always done theater--I couldn't stay off the stage--but I never was a theater major. My father wouldn't have spoken to me.

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