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Circle complete

Actress finally to grace the stage where she fell in love with theatre

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Martha Burns was in Grade 4 at Grosvenor School when her best friend asked her out of the blue: "Do you want to go to theatre school?"

Although she had no idea what that was, the curious youngster agreed to attend Saturday-morning classes with her BFF Kate, the daughter of Bill Wylie, general manger of Manitoba Theatre Centre. In 1964, she saw Little Miss Sunshine, the first of many MTC productions that helped set the stage for her future acting career.

"The Manitoba Theatre Centre was my introduction to the world I chose to be in," says Burns, a graduate of St. John's-Ravencourt School. "The shows I saw there had a huge effect on me."

She went on to become an award-winning Toronto-based actor, a founding member of the Soulpepper Theatre Company and might be best remembered for her portrayal of neurotic leading lady Ellen Fanshaw on the TV show Slings & Arrows, for which she won two Gemini awards for best actress.

Her love interest on the satirical cult series about a fictional Shakespearean troupe was Canuck heartthrob Paul Gross, the former Due South star she has been married to for more than 25 years.

Despite many trips to visit her father in Charleswood, Burns has never tread the boards of her hometown stage. (Burns was born in Chicago, but eight months later her father, a Great-West Life employee, returned the family to Winnipeg, "so it feels like I was born here.")

But it wasn't that she wasn't in demand.

"Martha is one of Canada's finest actors, and she's had a standing invitation to return home to grace MTC's stage since I've been here," says Steven Schipper, the company's artistic director since 1989.

Burns wouldn't leave Hogtown, or stray far from the Stratford and Shaw festivals, while raising her son and daughter, especially when her husband was enjoying a flourishing television career. Now that she is a 56-year-old empty-nester, Burns is free again to pursue roles wherever they may take her.

She returns to where it all started for her on April 17 when she makes her MTC debut in the season-ender Good People -- her first appearance in a regional theatre in decades. In the David Lindsay-Abaire's Tony Award-nominated drama, she plays a sharp-tongued single mother who lives with her handicapped adult daughter in a working-class neighbourhood of Boston known as Southie.

When Margie (pronounced with a hard G) is sacked from another dead-end job and faces eviction, she seeks help from an old flame who has carved out a comfortable life as a successful doctor.

"I guess we finally found the role she couldn't resist, and we've built our production around her much-appreciated participation," Schipper says.

As fate would have it, Good People brought together Burns and her childhood theatre-school buddy, who just happens to live in Boston.

"My first connection with MTC was through her and hundreds of years later, there's Kate helping me prepare for my MTC debut, She introduced me to her husband's relatives who live in Southie. That makes a great circle for me," Burns says.

Burns is always amazed by the number of Winnipeggers she meets in theatre. She says it is a standing joke in the biz that all Winnipeg kids go to theatre school. The cast list reflects that reality. Three of the six actors are Winnipeggers (Patricia Hunter, Tracey Nepinak and Eric Blais) and the other three are ex-Winnipeggers (Burns, Ari Cohen and Audrey Dwyer). One of her close friends is another actor from River City, Susan Coyne, who co-wrote and performed in Slings & Arrows and partnered with Burns in the creation of the 2008 short film How Are You?

Good People is Lindsay-Abaire's followup to the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Rabbit Hole, the grieving-parent drama that was made into a film starring Nicole Kidman. Good People was the most performed play in the United States during the 2012-13 season. The role of Margie has lured serious actresses like Frances McDormand -- best known for her work in the movie Fargo -- who in 2011 won the Tony Award for best actress in a play. Jane Kaczmarek (TV's Malcolm in the Middle) took it on in Los Angeles and Imelda Staunton of the Harry Potter films performed the role in London.

"She's wonderful to play," says Burns, who was pregnant with her first child in 1990 when her husband starred in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at MTC. "She is someone who didn't imagine a small life for herself, but circumstances have made it small. She shoots her mouth off and often speaks before thinking. It's fun to play someone like that."

Good People explores the great divide between the haves and the have-nots, and raises uneasy questions about the role of hard work, choices and dumb luck in determining the course of a life.

"It's about good people trying to be good and they are not always," says Burns.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2014 C3

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