When she was an undergraduate majoring in Russian studies at Brown University, Kate Burton had no intention of pursuing a career in the theater. She was going to be a diplomat. In her senior year, she had the choice of studying abroad at Leningrad State University or playing the tortured young actress Nina in a student production of “The Seagull.” She chose Chekhov, and she’s been acting in his plays ever since. “That began my love affair with Chekhov,’’ the auburn-haired actress says.
She’s played the young Anya and the aging matriarch Madame Ranevskaya in “The Cherry Orchard” and all three siblings in “Three Sisters.” She was in a film version of “Uncle Vanya” directed by Anthony Hopkins. She’s shared the stage with Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken, and Kristin Scott Thomas, working her way through the roles of youthful women searching for identity to the well-established middle-aged leading ladies.
“I first did Chekhov when I was 18, and now I’m 56,’’ she says. “I have grown up in his plays.” In fact, she can track major life events by recalling certain roles. She was in a production of “Three Sisters” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival when she conceived her son, Morgan Ritchie. She was in a London production of the same play when her son told her that he, too, wanted to be an actor.
And now mother and son are performing together in the Huntington Theatre Company production of “The Seagull,’’ which opens for previews March 7 and runs through April 6 at the Boston University Theatre. She plays the narcissistic thespian Madame Arkadina, and he plays her son Konstantin, a tormented young writer. “Here we are in 2014, and Chekhov’s plays are still resonating,” Burton says. “As I work on this play, I have to take a moment and think, Oh my God, this man! How did he know so much about life and human beings and relationships?”
The mother-son relationship is fraught in the play. Konstantin lives in the shadow of his famous mother and complains that she hates him. “I’m a constant reminder that she’s not so young anymore,’’ the character says. “When I’m not around, she’s only 32; when I’m around, she’s 43.” Indeed, the glamorous Arkadina is full of herself. “She has maybe four or five maternal moments, but she cares more about her lover than she does about her son,’’ says Burton.
Ritchie will be the first to tell you that his real-life relationship with his mother is nothing like the one in the play. “She is not like that at all,’’ he says in a joint interview during a rehearsal break. The two exude a natural rapport and often finish each other’s thoughts. They have acted together before, as teacher and student in the Huntington’s 2009 production of “The Corn Is Green.” But this is the first time they’ve played mother and son onstage.
“It’s a weird thing,” Ritchie says. “It’s weird to look at your mom . . .” She interrupts: “Your real-life actual mom.” He nods and continues. “She’s playing a role that goes against all her natural instincts.” Burton lets out a laugh. “The costume designer said the other day, ‘You are so not like this woman.’ Well, thank Christ! As a result, it is a hoot to play her.”
Ritchie, 25, is at the beginning of his own professional love affair with Chekhov, but he also grew up in the theater. He is the son of Burton and her husband, Michael Ritchie, the former producer of Williamstown Theatre Festival and current artistic director of the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. As a boy, he performed many children’s roles at Williamstown, and he appeared in the film adaptation of “Uncle Vanya” (called “August”) with his mother when he was 6. He announced that he wanted to be an actor one night in London, when he and his mother were watching the Academy Awards on television. “Morgan was 14. Adrien Brody won best actor, and he kissed Halle Berry,” Burton recalls. “That’s when Morgan said, ‘I think I want to be an actor.’ ’’
Was her reaction like that of her father, the legendary Welsh actor Richard Burton, when she told him she wanted to be an actress? “Nooooo,’’ she says, before the question is even finished. Her father objected to her career choice. He also didn’t want her to go to the Yale School of Drama and told her to attend the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London instead. “He said, ‘You won’t know how to speak,’ and I said, ‘At least I won’t speak with a pretentious British accent,’ ’’ says Burton, who has the same penetrating gray-green eyes as her father. “It was the only fight I ever had with my dad.”
Her father didn’t attend her performances at Brown or Yale. “I didn’t want that whole thing of ‘Oh God, here he comes.’ He was so famous at the time,’’ she says. She attended all of her son’s productions in high school and later in college without creating a stir, even though she was well known for her work on the television show “Grey’s Anatomy” at the time. (She now plays Vice President Sally Langston on “Scandal.”) Ritchie followed his mother to Brown, where he directed a student production of “Three Sisters” that featured fellow student Emma Watson as Irina. And Burton remembers seeing her son in “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” when he was 16. “He came out onstage as this drunken judge, and my husband and I went, ‘Holy moley’ — we said something a little stronger — ‘This is an actor.’ ”
The younger Ritchie is also a nascent writer, like the character he plays in “The Seagull.” He is hardly a tortured soul, but he does relate to Konstantin’s frustrations as a young artist trying to find his voice. “It speaks to the predicament young artists feel,’’ he says. “You are trying to break into this world with a bunch of older people who don’t understand and who refuse to let go of their territory.”
The play unfolds at a country estate where two generations of artists sit around, perpetually bored. There isn’t much “action,” but there is subtext in every line. Madame Arkadina’s lover is also a writer, and he clashes with Konstantin. The young Nina desperately wants to be an actress, and some of the older characters wish they had done more artistic things with their lives. Of Chekhov’s four major plays, it is the only one to directly address questions about what it means to be an artist.
“It is about art and about mediocrity and about failure and success and all of those things,’’ says director Maria Aitken, adding that she doesn’t want to pigeonhole the play by defining any one Big Theme. “It is like an eel,’’ she says. “It moves in its own direction, and you don’t know exactly what it is. You don’t want to give it a name.’’
Aitken stepped in to direct after Nicholas Martin, former artistic director of the Huntington and Burton’s frequent collaborator, bowed out of the production for personal reasons. She inherited his design team and most of the cast and aims to be true to his original vision.
The director says that Chekhov still resonates today, in part because he changed the course of theater. He wrote plays in which mood is more important than action, and he began to break away from melodrama in “The Seagull.” (He didn’t quite get there: The second line in Paul Schmidt’s Americanized translation is “I’m in mourning for my life.”) As for Burton, she has been a Chekhov aficionado ever since she first performed in “The Seagull” so many years ago. “He is a humanist,’’ she says. “He writes these slices of life. It’s like putting your living room in the theater.”
The actress did a happy dance during the recent opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics, which paid tribute to the playwright during a display of the Cyrillic alphabet. “C is for Chekhov,” says Burton, who wears hiking boots to rehearsal so she can feel like she is tromping around Russia. She speaks Russian and has seen Chekhov’s plays in their native language at the Moscow Art Theatre. In one production of “The Cherry Orchard,” she says, “they sobbed and cried from beginning to end. That is not right. He writes through tears. He doesn’t want you to be crying, but to be on the verge of crying.”
In her view, “The Seagull” is the most “brutal” of Chekhov’s plays, and even though she has known the play since her love affair with the playwright began so many years ago, it still short-circuits her emotions, especially now with her own son in the production. The ending is wrenching for the audience, as many of the characters carry on frivolously in the wings while a tragedy unfolds onstage. “That is what it is so stark,’’ she says. “It is fascinating and absolutely immediate and why I just have to do this play.”