The first thing you should know about Fred Sullivan, Jr. is that the actor-director loves Shakespeare. “As much as breathing” he said. Which puts him in good stead for his current Shakespeare on the Common gig playing the powerful, generationally challenged Earl of Gloucester in “King Lear.”
Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in celebration of its 20th season, performances are free and run through Aug. Founding Artistic Director Steve Maler directs.
Blending the political and the personal, “King Lear” is a monumental work that follows the final journey of an aging leader. Faced with his own mortality and mental decline, he tries to secure the legacy of his kingdom by dividing it among his three daughters. Only through loss of status, love, and loyalty does Lear learn what is truly resonant at the end of a life.
Sullivan has been involved with “King Lear” three times in the past – twice as an actor and once directing a production for Gamm Theater in Rhode Island. However, the Boston production holds special meaning.
“I’ve always, always, always wanted to play Gloucester,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite roles actually, since reading it at St. John’s Prep in Danvers in an advanced English class. I just loved it. I loved what he had to say, what he went through.”
Sullivan admits that “Hamlet” ranks at the top of many Best Lists for The Bard, but said, “I think it’s a tie. ‘King Lear’ is more of a mature look. It was written about five of six years after ‘Hamlet’ and after Shakespeare had lost his son and had kind of gone through a lot in his life. It definitely is a very wise and deeply moving work.”
Sullivan, who is originally from Chelsea, gave a hearty laugh when I mentioned that I knew he was raised as a nice Irish Catholic boy and said, “I don’t know if I was raised nice, but I was a Chelsea Irish Catholic.” His great grandfather, an O’Sullivan, emigrated during the famine, becoming Sullivan upon arrival. “He dropped the O in the ocean,” said his great-grandson.
Sullivan’s parents, now gone, were part of the Chelsea landscape. “My father was the city auditor and my mother worked for the school department. Superintendents came and went but she was always there. They were a floor apart from each other. They were kind of immersed in the whole Chelsea culture and were beloved.”
The small town loyalty was immense. “When my father passed away, the police and fire department were all out in full salute as the hearse went by. With flags at half staff. It was something that stays with you your whole life.”
That closeness led to many of the family’s friends moving to the Cape. “The year I was born, there was a great immigration down to Cape Cod to buy cheap summer houses that now are worth much, much more than what they paid. They all bought close to each other. All the people in City Hall, past mayors . . . Everybody knew each other. There was a great Irish community – amazing.”
Those summers ultimately opened the Stage Door for Fred Sullivan. “Betty Bobp, a teacher of creative dramatics, started the Harwich Junior Theater on the Dennis Port-Harwich line,” he said. “I walked into that building when I was 6 years old and watched ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’ . . . they had me for life. I left when I was 29. But by that time I was directing, designing, teaching, starring, and we were doing a lot of adult theater: Tennessee Williams and Becket and Shaw.”
Although he has a long list of credits at theaters across the country as both actor and director, from comedy to drama, Sullivan has spent over 30 seasons as a member of the resident acting company at Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence.
“I went to school there,” he said. “I started in ’83. Adrian Hall, the founder of the theater in ‘84, put me in three plays as a student. When I was in my second play, he said to me, ‘We’d like you to become a fellow and see if it all works out. You’ll become a member of the company.’”
He has been there ever since. “This is my profession and my passion. I’ve done four plays a year there for the past 30 years.”
At the same time, Sulliovan is delighted to be back in Boston this summer, playing on the Common. “This is my eighth Shakespeare on the Common and I’m so happy to be saying these words.”
He also embraces the challenge of performing outdoors. “It’s glorious and magical. You hear your voice bound off the skin of the tall buildings. It’s so rewarding and wonderful. And the audience looks like the world looks because it’s free . . . people of every shape, size, color and walk of life, crammed onto blankets, eating chicken and iced tea and putting it all away in a picket basket when the first words are spoken.”
His locals siblings – a sister in Chestnut Hill and a brother in Dennis Port – will be attending “Lear.” A second sister lives on the west coast of Ireland, working as a journalist.
The Sullivan family has maintained a Boston presence that has stretched across the years. Fred’s grandfather was a plumber. Family legend has it that he installed some of the plumbing in Fenway Park. Decades before, his great grandmother was a “kitchen canary” on Beacon Hill. Meanwhile, he has a niece who’s currently interning in the governor’s office at the State House only steps from where he is performing nightly on the Common.
As he strolls Boston’s streets, Sullivan senses the hard work of his family interwoven into the tapestry of the city. ”It’s all packed in there . . . There’s a lot of blood in the brick and mortar.”
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“King Lear,” from Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, through August 9. FREE, near Parkman Bandstand at the Tremont-Boylston Street area of Boston Common. commshakes.org.