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Keeping Wit in the Family

Shirley Knight is playing Kaitlin Hopkins' mother in 'The Importance of Being Earnest.' It's not really much of a stretch.

May 16, 1999|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When actress Kaitlin Hopkins first told her mother that she had been cast as Gwendolen Fairfax in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," Hopkins got a dual reaction.

Her mother was pleased, of course, that Hopkins would be starring in another Pasadena Playhouse show. And, she added, she'd love to play the role of Gwendolen's mother, Lady Bracknell.

Since Hopkins' mother happens to be Tony-winning actress Shirley Knight, director Sheldon Epps was immediately receptive. His reaction, he says, was "unalloyed joy. She's obviously so right for the role, and to have the added juice of mother and daughter playing mother and daughter was too delicious an idea to pass up."

Knight joins Hopkins, Patrick Dempsey, Robert Curtis Brown, Lina Patel and company in Wilde's 1895 classic comedy of manners, opening tonight at the Pasadena Playhouse. After nearly four decades of interpreting such legendary American characters as Tennessee Williams' Blanche du Bois and Amanda Wingfield and, more recently, Horton Foote's Lily Dale, Knight will inhabit Wilde's witty, haughty and equally legendary Lady Bracknell.

Few fictional characters offer dramatic actresses--and, sometimes, actors--such an attractive shot at comedy. The scene-stealing British matriarch has been played by everyone from Glynis Johns and Judi Dench to Ellis Rabb; Edith Evans played her in the 1952 film.

The chance to do comedy also attracted Knight, she says, and so did the opportunity to show Lady Bracknell's human side. "Not that Lady Bracknell isn't eccentric or odd or angry," Knight says, "but our image of her has been completely distorted by a kind of grotesque idea of who she really is. What I'm discovering working on it is that you start with the human being that she is."

Hopkins does the same with her character, says Epps, who is artistic director of the playhouse. "No matter how outrageous or comic something becomes, they're both intent on grounding that in an emotional reality," the director says. "And they're both kind of wonderfully silly, crazy women, willing to take a chance and leap at whatever curious choice I throw at them or ask them to try. They've very daring in that sense."

Chatting on the patio outside the rehearsal hall, the two women appear well-suited to a play its author called "a trivial comedy for serious people." Knight, 62, is demure in an oatmeal-colored sundress and jacket; Hopkins, 34, is less demure in her dark sundress, forget the jacket. Leaning back in her chair as her daughter leans forward in hers, Knight appears perfectly willing not only to share but also to quietly yield the spotlight.

Yet neither holds court very long without interruption. Knight feeds Hopkins a line, adds a comment, punctuates a thought, while Hopkins serves as almost a Greek chorus for her mother, amplifying or highlighting whatever she might have just said. It may be an interview, but the two actresses talk as much to one another as to the interviewer.

Knight, for instance, gets about halfway through a story of how she and her sister and all their friends got jobs as extras on "Picnic" when the film was shot in Sterling, Kan., about 12 miles from her hometown. When she mentions she saw William Holden, Hopkins jumps in to say "who you worked with years later," and with a slight smile, Knight finishes the story.

Theirs is a special relationship, confirms Kaitlin's younger half-sister, Sophie Hopkins. "Mother wasn't 100% behind Kaitlin becoming an actress, since it's a hard career, but when she saw how much Kaitlin loved it, she knew it would be fruitless to deter her from that path."

Sophie, a writer like her father, playwright John Hopkins, continues: "My parents were never opposed to our having artistic dreams. They both always wanted us to think artistically and creatively.

"The first thing Kaitlin ever acted in with Mom was 'The Children's Hour.' Kaitlin played one of the schoolgirls, and at a very young age became Mom's peer as opposed to just her daughter. Their world of acting is almost private, a connection between the two of them that they share. I love watching them."

Most people would. "I was watching Shirley watching Kaitlin, and she was watching her really critically," observes co-star Dempsey. "Then she just sort of turned and nodded her head, approving what Kaitlin was doing and laughing quietly to herself."

They've worked together several times now, including an extended run of "Come Back, Little Sheba" at New York's Roundabout Theatre in 1984, and "Another Mother/Daughter Act" cabaret performance at the Gardenia Club in Hollywood in 1989. In 1996, they played mother and daughter in George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession" for L.A. Theatre Works' radio series.

"Shaw's heroine and Mrs. Warren are very different in the play, but what they have in common is an indomitable spirit," observes L.A. Theatre Works producing director Susan Loewenberg. "And that's the way I think of Shirley and Kaitlin."

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