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Rosemary Harris: Actress for All Seasons

Harris' dressing-room reflections on her 48 years on Broadway.

Rosemary Harris
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!

With Barnard Hughes
in 'Waiting in the Wings'
"It is disappointing that so few new plays come to Broadway. It was fun in the old days when there were ten to 15 straight plays on at a time," Harris rather reluctantly admits. "But there are more revivals today, which is filling some of the void of new plays. I remember when 'revival' was rather a dirty word. You know, people didn't want to go and see revivals. They weren't accustomed to them. In recent years people have started to 'collect' their favorite performances of Death of a Salesman, The Iceman Cometh, A Streetcar Named Desire, and that sort of thing.

"I was just realizing the difference when I first came to Broadway more than 40 years ago in 1952 and 40 years before that in 1912, when there were so many melodramas on Broadway," Harris continued. "Who dreamed the theater would ever be what it was in 1952 back in 1912? So, too, I've seen a great may changes in the theater. It's so amazing--and exciting! But we do know one sure thing: that the theater will never die. The patient, sometimes called 'The Fabulous Invalid,' is not going to die."

Harris continues, "This is the first time I've been back on Broadway since A Delicate Balance a few years ago, and I think the theater district, and all of Times Square, has become a much friendlier place than ten or 20 years ago. But to me, Broadway has always had more a 'village' feeling than London's West End. The theaters here are clustered together, the staff and many people in the business know each other--it's like a little village all to itself, whereas in London everything is more spread out."

I ask her if she has any idea where Broadway's headed in the next 50 years? "No, I don't think so," Harris replies. "Just today, I saw a little brownstone [townhouse], looking very charming with its little steps going up, and right beside it this huge new steel and glass skyscraper. And I thought, little did the people who originally built this house know that in such a [comparatively] short time there would be this thing which looks like it was from Mars!"

She shows me a write-up of her daughter, Jennifer Ehle, which was just published in the London Sunday Times. Did Harris discourage her daughter from being in the theater? "No, I didn't," she said. "She just came to me one day when she was 14 and said, 'I want to do it.' I said 'Why?' And she said, 'Why wouldn't I? You have so much fun!'

"I think Noël Coward would be awfully pleased by this production and the reaction to it, because from all accounts he was bitterly disappointed by the first production, and it's probably a better shaped play than it was. It's all musical. If we just say the lines out loud and the audience hears them, they respond.
"When he did it in the 1960s, there were a lot of young Turks. Young critics, they were feeling their oats, and they just didn't feel that a play about a lot of old bats living in a retirement home in England was going to be interesting, really.

"It's lovely to be acting with Lauren Bacall. We're been friends for a long time--since about 1956, since she met Jason Robards when he and I did The Disenchanted. So we've known each other just socially all that time and we've often talked about doing a play together. She's wonderful to work with.

"I don't read reviews [anymore]," Harris continues. "You get terribly depressed if they're bad for you and if they're good then you start playing your reviews, emphasizing those things that the reviewer likes. It's grown on me over the years, not reading them. When I was younger, I tried not to read them, but I really have succeeded this time. I just let it go. The bouquets you get are lovely, but they fade, while the brickbats stay stinging for a long time."

Harris well understands the appeal of Waiting in the Wings. "This play is about the theater, and is a gift to the theater. I think audiences love plays about actors because they like to see what happens behind the scenes." In The Royal Family, about the great Barrymore acting clan, Harris played the role inspired by Ethel Barrymore. "And there's the daughter, Gwen, who wants to go off to marry a stockbroker and I say, 'Darling, you must go on with your career. You're so talented. One day they'll look at me and say, "That's her mother!" And I'll be so [Harris pauses poignantly, playfully] ... happy!' And I thought, it's beginning to happen to me now, because everyone wants to talk to me about Jennifer, asking me if she wants do things. 'Do you think your daughter might be free?' they ask."

Harris tells me that her husband "has just finished a novel which he's very pleased with... I don't think he'll ever do a play. It's a different talent. He's written a movie script of one of his own books, but I don't think he's really interested in doing a play."

As for the future, Harris is weighing several offers, but for now hopes that Waiting in the Wings will continue at another Broadway house. (A Moon for the Misbegotten, starring Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones, opens March 22 at the Walter Kerr Theater in March.)

"Home base is Winston Salem, North Carolina," Harris says. "We also have a little flat in London, and one in New York." But as we leave her dressing room and walk across the set of The Wings, the fictional residential home for retired actresses in Waiting in the Wings, I can't help but feel that the erstwhile star of An Inspector Calls, Pack of Lies, and dozens of other plays is already home.


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