Actor's secret echoed in play
In his last appearance at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in the summer of 2000, Richard Chamberlain played a once successful playwright who tries to alter the expectations of a group of ardent fans.
He's back this summer as a man living a hidden life, about which Chamberlain knows a great deal.
The play is "The Stillborn Lover" by Canadian playwright Timothy Findley, who died last June. It begins performances July 8 on BTF's Main Stage (press opening is July 9).
In it, Chamberlain plays a married Canadian diplomat who has kept under wraps the fact that he is gay. Chamberlain -known for his romantic leading roles in TV's "The Thorn Birds," "Shogun" and as "Dr. Kildare"- acknowledged his own homosexuality in a recent interview on NBC's "Dateline."
Out of the closet
The interview coincided with the publication of his book, "Shattered Love," a philosophical exploration of his life views in which he also acknowledges his homosexuality.
"Harry [the character Chamberlain plays in 'The Stillborn Lover'] has lived this secret life, so I know what he's going through," the actor said during a news conference yesterday morning in BTF's Unicorn Theatre -where he was joined by fellow cast members Jessica Walter, Keir Dullea, Lois Nettleton, Jennifer van Dyke, Robert Emmet Lunney and Kaleo Griffith.
Chamberlain said that publicly acknowledging his homosexuality has been liberating.
"I discovered," he said in response to a question, "that the whole issue of being gay was a nonissue, just stories in my head. It's been a way of getting over my self-dislike.
"I used to think that if I ever whispered this terrible secret, I'd be shot."
Rather than change fans' expectations, Chamberlain said he found enormous public support during a recent two-week book promotion tour.
"It's been amazing," he said. "All I can say is that anyone here who's afraid of himself in any way, stop it."
"The Stillborn Lover," which runs through July 26, deals with the mystery surrounding Chamberlain's character, Harry Raymond, who is called back to a safe house in Ottawa from his post in Moscow following the murder of a male prostitute. Joining Harry is his wife, Marion (Nettleton), who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
Also present are Harry and Marion's daughter, Diana (van Dyke); Harry's close friend, Michael Riordan (Dullea), the minister of external affairs and widely rumored to be Canada's next prime minister; Riordan's wife, Juliet (Walter); Jackman (Lunney), a senior investigator for the Royal Mounted Canadian Police; and a shadowy figure named Mahavolitch (Griffith), whose job is to expose homosexuals in the Canadian government.
Published in 1993, "The Stillborn Lover" premiered in 1999 at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario. This BTF production is the American premiere.
The play was brought to Chamberlain two years ago by BTF Executive Director Kate Maguire.
"It's a complicated, evocative play," Chamberlain said, explaining his attraction to the project, "a difficult character to search out. This also is an ensemble piece, not a show-off play."
Dullea, whose film and stage credits include "Butterflies Are Free," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "David and Lisa" and "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" with Elizabeth Ashley, said he was drawn to this project first by the complexity of his character and then because of the people with whom he'd be working.
Homecoming for Dullea
For Dullea, "The Stillborn Lover" is a homecoming of sorts. His first job after leaving acting school was in 1958 as resident juvenile at the then Berkshire Playhouse. Dullea returned two years later to play several roles through the 1960 season.
This production also marks a reunion between Dullea and Nettleton, who worked with Dullea in the 1964 film, "Mail Order Bride." They haven't worked together since.
"I've worked with half this cast," said Nettleton. "I've worked with Keir, with Richard in 'Dr. Kildare' and I acted with Jessica in a television film, 'Women in Chains.'"
Nettleton characterized the role of Marion Raymond as "complex, a real challenge." Part of her preparation for the role has included talking with people who work with Alzheimer's patients.
"I've always wanted to work here," Walter said, explaining her attraction to this project. "I also related to the character [Juliet Riordan]. Here is this woman, wife of the soon-to-be Canadian prime minister, an ambitious political couple, the whole Bill and Hillary thing. I thought she was an interesting multifaceted character in the kind of play one hardly finds anymore -a well-made melodrama."
"For me," said van Dyke, "I was attracted to the idea of playing a daughter returning to her parents, discovering things about them that she didn't know. Also, this is a mystery play. Each of us is changed by what we think happened."
"As the investigator, I always have an action to play on stage," Lunney said. "I'm never sure about what happened. We are all trying to find out what happened."
"I'm the newbie on this beat," Griffith said. "What interests me about my character is why he does what he does. His job is to root out homosexuals in the government. Why would this man want to do that? Why would anyone?"
Dullea paid special tribute to the show's director, Martin Rabbett, who was unable to attend the news conference.
"He's a wonderful actors' director," Dullea said, with the other members of the cast nodding agreement. "He creates an atmosphere of safety. He gives us permission to be foolish and stupid and fall on our face."
"To try things," Nettleton added.
What actors don't want in a director, Walter said in response to a question, "is to be misled, to be taken down a wrong path. You can never recover."
"Some directors can brutalize you," Dullea said. He named the late film director, Otto Preminger, as a prime example.
"If you saw 'Stalag 17' [a 1953 film directed by Preminger and set in a German prisoner of war camp] and saw his appearance as a Nazi colonel, that was Otto on a good day."
© 2003 Jeffrey Borak