Reflecting on her family's history, Kate Burton likes to relate a story about her son, Morgan Ritchie, grandson of the late stage and film actor Richard Burton.
The actress, who just completed working with Ritchie at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, recalls bringing Morgan with her to a film shoot in northern Wales, 13 years ago. "We went to the local video store and got a few tapes. Morgan and I watched three of my dad's movies – 'Anne of a Thousand Days,' 'Becket,' and 'The Taming of the Shrew.' " Six-year-old Morgan finally turned to her and said, "Granddad sure did a lot of castle-ish movies, Mom!"
Now an adult, Ritchie joined his mother on stage in Emlyn Williams's "The Corn Is Green" at Williamstown, Mass., earlier this month. The play, costarring Ginnifer Goodwin of HBO's "Big Love," was the first time the two generations of this acting dynasty had acted side by side.
"We both have that British Isles look," says Ritchie, a US native. The Swiss-born Burton adds, "We have had close cultural contact with that world forever."
Burton has been cast in several British roles, including the revival of "The Elephant Man" and her Tony-nominated role in "The Constant Wife." Her Emmy Award came for the after-school special "Notes for My Daughter," and she appears on ABC's TV hit, "Grey's Anatomy."
Mother and son have a strong personal bond, often finishing each other's sentences. This production offered an opportunity to tie together other aspects of their lives. The playwright, a close friend of Richard Burton, was the actress's godfather. And "The Corn Is Green," about an educated British matron setting up a school to teach the children of Welsh coal miners, mirrors the early life of Burton's father.
"My father came from a family where there were a lot of coal miners," Burton says. "And it was the dedication of one of his early teachers that got him out of that life and into Oxford."
Richard Burton, born Richard Jenkins, took that teacher's last name as his stage name in tribute. "I learned that my grandfather always wanted to play this part," adds Ritchie, who stars as a young miner in "The Corn Is Green." "But because of being in school and going into the Royal Air Force, by the time he got out of the RAF, he was too old."
Burton confesses it wasn't easy to forget she was acting opposite her son. "There was a moment during one early performance when he did something that I thought was so beautifully played. I was just overwhelmed, and I slipped out of my role for a moment, but I got right back into it," she reveals. "I was very particular never to touch him, except at the end to shake his hand. Once, I happened to put my hand on his jacket, and caught myself. I thought 'no, no. Not good!' "
Ritchie, whose father, Michael, is Artistic Director of the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles and a former Williamstown Artistic Director, claims to have had an easier time of it.
"We did have the fact that her character is like a surrogate mother to mine, who is an orphan, but we still never felt like mother and son onstage," he says.
The career paths of mother and son have parallels, but also some sharp differences. Burton attended Brown University, where Ritchie currently concentrates on theater courses. But her major was Russian studies, and she only explored acting once she was in her 20s. After gaining her Yale drama degree, she landed a notable role on Broadway, in Noel Coward's "Present Laughter." Decades later, she matter-of-factly retraces her career route. "I was in between an ingenue and a leading lady, then I became a leading lady, and now I go back and forth between leading lady and character roles."
Ritchie made a conscious choice in his mid-teens "to go into the family business." Among the lessons learned from being around rehearsal halls all his life: Do not get wrapped up in your own insecurities.
"I had good role models," Burton adds, observing that her father's work ethic was that of a consummate professional. "He didn't obsess about his work," she observes. "Morgan and I have followed that. We do our work, we leave the room, and we leave the work in the room."