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Texan Tony Winner Harriet Harris Takes The Roads to Home in Horton Foote Revival

The stage and screen mainstay appears in Primary Stages' season-opening production.

Over the years, Harriet Harris has played many colorful characters. Onstage, she's left an indelible impression on us with her iconic, Tony-winning performance as Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie. She followed that up with malevolent and wickedly funny turns in Cry-Baby and Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella (where she played the evil Stepmother). Television audiences have their own memory of her as the devilish Bebe Glazer on Frasier or the backstabbing Felicia Tillman on Desperate Housewives.

As recognizable as Harris is, she's never taken on a role that most resembles her own life as a native Texan. Until now. In Horton Foote's The Roads to Home, a Primary Stages production, Harris plays Vonnie Hayhurst, a Houston housewife whose life changes virtually overnight when her marriage begins to falter. Not only is the play an opportunity for the actress to capture the spirit of the Lone Star State, it's also the chance to play opposite her real-life companion, actor Matt Sullivan. "I love it," she says. And for her, that simple statement speaks volumes.

Harriet Harris returns to the stage in The Roads to Home at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
(© David Gordon)

The Roads to Home feels like a series of three one-act plays, but they're all interconnected.
[Fellow cast member] Hallie [Foote] talked a little bit about that. She kind of bridles at the description of them being one-acts. It really is meant to be a three-act play, or more like a triptych. A series of one-acts is a very hard sell, especially now, for people. But it is interesting how the theme continues, but the focus changes as we go through.

Have you worked on any Horton Foote plays before?
No, I haven't. I'm a Texan, and when Michael [Wilson] first sent me an e-mail about this play, I said, "Oh my gosh! I get to play a Texan!" I can't believe it. I love the play and I love the amount of detail, and how much of it is revealed through the relationships rather than people saying, "This is the way it is." I enjoy his writing a lot. It's interesting that he's got these women who are quite different from one another, but their circumstances are so similar in how dependent women were on marriage. They have very limited options. I think the friendships become very strong because of that.

Your character is a Houston transplant, whose native state is Louisiana. How does that idea affect your performance?
I've been thinking about it in terms of people who come to New York and how few native New Yorkers there are. One doesn't always meet a native New Yorker. There are all these transplants and everyone is looking for another chance. In a city like New York, or Houston in the 1920s, there was so much accessible to people that any place else in Texas wouldn't be available. What you come upon, at least in our play, that's of comfort to these women are things that are similar to what they have at home, and not the new opportunities.

Harriet Harris and Hallie Foote in the Primary Stages production of The Roads to Home by Horton Foote at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
(© James Leynse)

Do you look for the humor when you're reading a play with the idea of taking on a role?
Most things do seem like there's an opportunity for humor. Generally things that are very, very sad, to be effective, have to have humor throughout. You get sick of the sad. You tend to want to see how people deal with it as opposed to lingering in that state. A good way to deal with it is through humor. It's just a very human way of looking at life or a path. That's almost always there. If it's not, I think I'm probably the wrong person, that there are people who would be better in this. I'm not going to get cast in that part of a humorless heroine.

For a play that has a lot of dark moments, it is surprisingly funny.
[Foote] really makes situations that one would find dire pretty funny. It's so satisfying to me to do sad stuff with funny people. It's really fun working with everybody, and my sweetheart Matt is in the show. He's playing my husband. We've gotten to do six or seven plays over the length of our lives together.

What is it like, in that respect, to work with your significant other?
I love it. He's got a different outlook on life, and a different way of working, but he almost always thinks the same thing about a play that I do. He's very interested in the story first, and that's something I always like more than "what if I did this?" We have fun talking about work at home and enjoy each other's work when we get to see it in other places.

Do you think about plays you would want to do together in the future?
No, not so much. We've done Hay Fever a couple of times, and we got to do Noises Off together. We met years and years ago doing Macbeth, neither of us playing the title role.

Is there more theater on your horizon after this run ends?
I expect to return home to California after the run, but that may change. I went to school here and I think you're always fond of your college town. I have many, many friends here that are still working that I feel like I grew up with. I love being in New York.

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