Shirley Douglas leans across the couch and, in the involuntary reflex of every mother with her son, flicks a piece of lint off Kiefer Sutherland’s shoulder. It is a simple gesture of both affection and familiarity. And when it happens, Sutherland, in full rhetorical flight about the fates and deals that have led the two of them to The Glass Menagerie and this stark backstage room in an Ottawa theatre, visibly relaxes. “This is the first time we have been able to take the dynamic of a relationship with a mother and a son and actually work together on an equal part,” he says. “As actors, I’m obviously listening to her ideas and desires, and she is to mine. But at lunch and after work, boom, we comfortably slide back.” Sutherland then turns and gazes at Douglas, who smiles as they are simultaneously struck by the same thought. “I don’t think,” says son to mother, “that a lot of parents and children ever get to do that.”
Douglas, 62, and Sutherland, 30, could not have chosen a richer vehicle to display their shared craft than Tennessee Williams’s haunting autobiographical work. A classic of the modern stage, The Glass Menagerie is the poignant tale of an impoverished, dysfunctional Southern family—the prattling mother, Amanda Wingfield, who with her feckless son, Tom, and her disabled daughter,
A classic reunites two members of a politics-acting dynasty
Laura, struggles to disguise, if not escape, a grinding existence in a dreary St. Louis tenement. Since the play’s debut to instant acclaim in 1945, a string of accomplished actors has attempted to weave the gossamer Wingfield web of what Tom calls “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” In its latest reincarnation, the drama—which opened last week at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and moves to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre from March 26 to May 3—has added the unique twist of having a real-life mother and son portraying Amanda and Tom, the first instance of such casting in a major production of the play. Anticipating the natural question that arises from that perfect symmetry, Sutherland, an eyebrow arched in the fashion of every Hollywood wry and bad boy, grins. “This is not therapy,” he drawls. “This is not us trying to cheat and really show you our relationship.” Maybe so, but when it comes to the fabled Douglas-Sutherland clan, truth is every bit as strange as fiction. Douglas, a veteran of Canadian theatre, has another incarnation behind her as a 1960s icon of the political fringe, the fearless daughter of New Democratic Party co-founder and first leader Tommy Douglas who not only befriended members of the radical Black Panthers in California, but fed their hungry children. During a five-year marriage to Canadian actor Donald Sutherland that began in 1966, Douglas steered her brood—eldest son, Tom (the product of a previous marriage),
Kiefer and his twin sister Rachel—from the hype and exaggerated luxury of Beverly Hills to the explosive front lines of the American protest movement. To the children, the smell of tear gas was almost as familiar as the aroma of popcorn: by the age of 6, Kiefer had marched in his first demonstration, an eight-kilometre trek he completed despite a broken leg. “Our mother’s politics were actually intrinsic in our lives, the one thing the three of us never challenged,” recalls Sutherland. “From an early age, we knew she was right.” But it is the glint of Hollywood, not politics, that draws the excited gasps of recognition in a national capital unfazed by the endless stream of sleek black sedans that whisk world leaders around the traffic jams they cause. On the relatively obscure stages of live theatre, Douglas, a former member of the National Arts Centre retinue who now lives in Toronto, has played so many character roles she is virtually unrecognized on the streets of Ottawa. Not so her famous son. To the older set, there is the eerie resemblance between Kiefer and his notoriously eccentric movie veteran father, Donald— those same lean, long features that can shift from happy innocence
to deadly menace in an instant. But to the younger crowd, he is the Canadian delegate to Hollywood’s 1980s brat pack, the surly bully of Stand By Me and Young Guns who, in real life, captured Julia Roberts and then lost her at the altar.
Since his arrival in Ottawa in early February, nearly everyone has had a firsthand, or a one-degree-of-separation, Kiefer sighting. There is Kiefer with a beer at the Mayflower Pub at closing time, or waiting his turn in the lineups of every fast food joint within sight of Parliament Hill. There he is again, woefully underdressed, bare hands jammed in his pockets, skittering across the frozen canal one sunny afternoon while a CBC television crew filmed a piece on his mother called The. Prime of Shirley Douglas. It does not matter that Sutherland, who married Toronto native and former model Kelly Winn at a 200-guest affair last June, now leads a much more sedate private life on his Los Angeles-area ranch. No more pool halls, no more unrestrained carousing. The father of three (his nine-year-old daughter with first wife Camelia Kath and Winn’s two sons, 8 and 5) may still smoke Marlboros, but he carries a portable ashtray with a built-in electric fan. Says Douglas: “Kiefer is, let’s say, branching out.”
His connection to the Ottawa area is deeper than most people would suspect. In his early teens, Sutherland languished for one desultory year at Venta, a private school outside Ottawa, and when his grandparents were alive, he spent at least two weeks of six summers at the family cottage in nearby Wakefield, a place that Douglas could only part with last year after her mother, Irma, died. When the House of Commons was sitting in the 1970s, Kiefer and Rachel, now a Toronto-based television producer, would watch their impassioned grandfather from the public gallery. And Sutherland recalls how Stanley Knowles, the former NDP Winnipeg MP and, as Douglas’s unofficial godfather, still a close friend, “always used to bring me a hotdog, which was kind of against the rules.”
In a way, Kiefer began his career in Ottawa. In 1980, he was a
14-year-old blossoming rebel, intent on a profession in hockey or, better still, as a guitar player in a rock ’n’ roll band, when he slipped into the audience at the National Arts Centre to watch his mother transform herself into the blowsy, boozing persona of Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia WoolIf? Normally, whenever his parents performed, Kiefer, with a practised critical eye, fretted about muffed lines, missed cues or bad lighting. Halfway through the first act on this May night, though, he forgot about the mechanics of acting. It wasn’t even his mother on stage. It was Martha. “I sat in the theatre for a good 20 to 30 minutes after everybody had gone. I just kept staring at that stage,” he recalled. For the first time, he experienced the magic space between reality and illusion. “I slowly figured out that this void that I knew nothing about—this gap between my mother and the character she played—was what was really cool about being an actor. And I wanted to learn about it.”
That is partly why Sutherland cleared his calendar 18 months ago when his mother received a message on her home answering machine that the NAC planned to stage The Glass Menagerie and wanted them both for the lead roles. After a series of back-to-back films, burned out and restless, he had turned to directing with the cable-TV death-row drama Last Light in 1993 and, more recently, the romance Truth or Consequences, another TV movie. Between acting work as a Ku Klux Klan leader in A Time To Kill with Sandra Bullock and a role in the sci-fi thriller Dark City with William Hurt, he worked sporadically on his special project, a feature film about his grandfather and the birth of medicare. But there was something missing. “You make films at a breakneck pace and after 30 of them you start to develop shortcuts,” says Sutherland. “In that craft, you are honing your skills but you are also whittling away at the beautiful art of developing a character.” As he suspected, the first day of rehearsals with his mother in Ottawa was a rediscovery of an art. “The further we’ve gotten into it,” adds Sutherland, “the more complicated the relationship between Amanda and Tom has become.”
At a quiet moment in the play, Amanda comes up behind Tom and comfortably rests her hands on his shoulders. Sutherland says the first time she did it, he realized that “if someone else had done that to me, there would have been an initial uneasiness.” Douglas, watching her son, murmurs: “Oh really?” Sutherland shakes his head: “It was amazing.” A slow smile spreads across his face. “I actually stepped out and acknowledged that I felt entirely at home.” □
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