Diminutive yet statuesque, Rosemary Harris is nestled in her cozy, L-shaped dressing room, brandishing the same knowing smile she had on the stage of the Walter Kerr Theater in Waiting in the Wings a few moments earlier. She points to a glossy color photo of a strikingly beautiful young woman tacked to the wall.
No, it well could be, but it's not Harris as a young actress in the 1950s in The Disenchanted co-starring Jason Robards. That would be out-of-sync with what Harris, one of the finest stage actresses of our time, is all about--about caring for others, about joy, family, and great hope for the New York theater.
"It's my daughter, Jennifer. It was taken by Lord Snowdon for Vanity Fair, so it's very airbrushed and done up," says Harris, exuding the same odd mix of radiant sex appeal and unselfish motherly love she does on stage. "Ellis Rabb, my first husband, always said, 'She has a movie career in the palm of her hand.' But he was so anxious that she also keep up her stage work. That's what's wonderful--that it has happened with The Real Thing. That she's gone back to the stage [after doing several independent movies]. She did 15 months at Stratford-on-Avon and got wonderful reviews there. And it got her ready, in a sense, for this moment, for this wonderful part in The Real Thing, which is coming to Broadway in the spring."
Harris, who is celebrating her 48th year on Broadway, is co-starring with Lauren Bacall in Noël Coward's Waiting in the Wings--which, ironically, in the context of her remarks, is about survival. In the play, a score of older English actresses are living in a retirement home, reliving their earlier stage triumphs and enjoying their current companionship.
Harris, who is married to novelist and screenwriter John Ehle and mother to actress Jennifer Ehle, says, "I think the lovely thing about the Broadway production of Wings is that these are such gallant ladies. None of them have given up. And what's interesting is that we're all playing people who have retired, but fortunately, none of us have retired. In the play, [the characters] are all retired, but even in the play they're still performing off-stage. I guess you never stop performing."
Adding to this kind of play-within-a-play-within-a-play aura, my interview with Harris takes place in her dressing room just after a Wednesday matinee performance, and several of her colleagues ask if they can bring her any dinner. "No, dear, thank you very much. I have mine in the fridge," she tells one of them, then turns to me and continues. "I've also got a little cot here, so I can take a rest before the evening show. When I was younger I remember rushing back and cooking a meal for the family, and never thinking about having a nap between the shows! What we did do--I remember when Sardi's was in its heyday--we'd all rush off to Sardi's and have one martini, at least, or two, and a huge steak, then come back and collapse for an hour, and then, on with the show. The thought of doing that now... Now people have a cup of coffee, go to Starbucks!