Theatre

Funny girl, sad girl

Canadian stage veteran Fiona Reid is a master of complexity

John Bemrose August 11 1997
Theatre

Funny girl, sad girl

Canadian stage veteran Fiona Reid is a master of complexity

John Bemrose August 11 1997

Funny girl, sad girl

Canadian stage veteran Fiona Reid is a master of complexity

JOHN BEMROSE

Theatre

There is a moment in the Shaw Festival’s current production of The Seagull when Fiona Reid exquisitely balances the deep, contradictory emotions called up by Anton Chekhov’s classic 1896 play Her character, a 40ish actress called Arkadina, is trying to cheer up Masha (Corrine Koslo), a dowdy young woman depressed by her bad luck in love. Intent on showing Masha how important it is to stay youthful, Arkadina struts before her with her hands on her hips and says: “There, you see, light as a bird. I could play a girl of 15.”

Many actors would (and have) turned Arkadina’s line into an example of crushing snobbery. But Reid’s Arkadina is truly trying to help Masha, and so makes the scene far richer. Her remark is funny, because the matronly Arkadina could obviously not play a 15-year-old girl. Yet at the same time, as she loses herself in a fantasy of youthfulness, her behavior becomes strangely delicate and naïve—in fact, almost girlish—a poignant reminder of the spirit’s quixotic resistance to the body’s decay.

Reid’s complex Arkadina marks another triumph for one of the country’s finest actors. At 46, she is a two-time winner of Toronto’s Dora Award for Best Actress and has appeared frequently in theatres across the country—although many Canadians may remember her best as Cathy, the pert wife of Al Waxman’s character in the 1970s CBC series The King of Kensington. For the past few years, Reid has spent her winters in Toronto, appearing in Canadian Stage Company productions, and her summers at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a two-hour

drive south of Toronto, where she will co-star later this season in Harley Granville-Barker’s drama The Secret Life. And while she has made her reputation chiefly as a comic actor—she excels at portraying the witty heroines who populate Noël Coward’s plays— Reid’s talents go beyond an ability to provoke laughter. “Fiona makes her comedy integral to the character,” says Canadian Stage artistic director Bob Baker. “She has incredible comic timing, and knows how to work an audience. Yet she’s never cheap; she never

goes for the easy laugh.”

The secret of Reid’s talent is written in her face. The blond, blue-eyed actor is one of those performers—Buster Keaton is a famous example —who seem completely unaware of how amusing they are. Delivering a funny line, Reid seems possessed by a kind of naïve seriousness, as though humor were the furthest thing from her mind. Reid herself claims not to know how she does it. “I don’t mind not understanding why I make people laugh,” she says, sounding as if she does mind, at least a little. Perhaps it has something to do with how she can infuse her funniness with a sense of something sadder: at times, her face hints at a certain loneliness and vulnerability.

Born in England in 1951, the youngest of three, Reid spent much other childhood moving between foreign countries—Germany, Nigeria, the United States— where her father, Grainger, was serving as a physician with the British army. When Reid speaks of her family, she makes it sound like something invented by Coward: neurotic, combative and flamboyant. She characterizes her mother, Becky, as a cultured woman bewildered by her endless duties as wife and hostess, and she claims that Becky inspired her own naïve comedic style. “She’s very funny, though she doesn’t always realize it,” says Reid, adding, “she’s especially funny when she talks about anything sexual. And she seems able to make anything sexual.”

Reid thinks that her family’s frequent moves helped her become “a good mimic and good observer of people.” But the lifestyle also encouraged a certain insincerity as a way of coping with change. “Because there was no constancy, I never got to know myself,” Reid says. “I learned how to assume personas in different situations, to get by.” Reid characterizes herself as an intensely unruly child who, during her father’s Washington stint, got kicked out of Brownies for being too aggressive—“I was a tomboy. I should have tried Cubs.” Adds the actor: “I was in my 20s before I realized that I didn’t always have to be so confrontational, and that there was a thing called human decency.”

In 1964, the teenage Reid moved to Toronto, where her father had accepted a position with the Ontario ministry of health. At first unhappy with the staid WASP sensibility of the city, she finally began to settle down. Reid credits her high-school teachers with shocking her into an awareness of her abilities. “They said, ‘Look, you’ve got an IQ. Why are you wasting time?’ They saved me, I think.” Reid began to earn high grades—and perfect her Canadian accent, though she admits to its continuing instability. Her daughter, nine-year-old Julia, “tells me that I take on the accent of the person I’m speaking to.”

It was at McGill University in Montreal, in the late 1960s and early 70s, that Reid embraced acting. At first, she says, she was capable only of showing off—of playing various versions of herself. And again, it was the timely intervention of a teacher, a Miss Oxenford, who set her straight. “She told me, What you’re doing isn’t acting.’ What I needed to learn was how to stop performing and to become someone else.” Graduating from McGill in 1972, Reid got off to a flying start. After brief stints in summer stock, she did TV comedy with such future stars as John Candy and Dan Aykroyd and improv comedy at Second City in Toronto. Not long afterward, she joined The King of Kensington for three seasons, an experience she now says she was too ambitious to fully appreciate. “All I could see was that I was in a windowless studio, and I wanted to be onstage doing Shakespeare and Shaw.” Reid got to do Shakespeare for two seasons at Stratford, but it was at the Shaw Festival, in the early ’80s, that she came into her own. “At Shaw, I learned how to have fun with acting—to be relaxed enough in rehearsals to take risks, to fall flat on my face.” Reid also credits her private life with giving her a stability that nourishes her craft. In 1977, she married McCowan Thomas, today the owner of a Toronto theatrical sets workshop. “He exuded such calm and serenity,” Reid recalls, “and I hadn’t seen too many examples of that in the masculine form.” They have two children, Julia, and 11-year-old Alec.

Although a bona fide Canadian star, Reid is hardly getting rich. She says she made around $30,000 in 1996—a particularly bad year—though 1997 is going much better. And on the whole, she thinks she has found satisfaction: “I have exactly the career I wanted,” she insists. “I feel utterly blessed.” □