Actress relishes a stretch - Harris stars as unhappy wife and mother
15 February 2002
The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ
(c) 2002. The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.
NEW JERSEY STAGE All Over Where: McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton When: Through March 3. Tuesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. How much: $23-$43. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.
Rosemary Harris is all wrong for her role in Edward Albee's "All Over." That's because in the revival of the 1971 play - opening at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton on Saturday night - Harris plays a mother who has come to hate her daughter. "She's so disappointed in her," Harris says. "She says the girl has made `a rubble' of her life. It must be awkward to have progeny who disappoint you." She stops and gives a full-throated laugh. "I wouldn't know." For Harris is the mother of Jennifer Ehle, who two seasons ago won a Tony Award for starring in "The Real Thing." The irony is that Harris was one of her rival nominees, for "Waiting in the Wings." "And if I had won," Harris says, "you would have seen the wrong sort of tears pouring down my cheeks. I would have been devastated, and that's not just altruism on my part. She shouldn't have her mum take it away from her. It was her turn." Harris had hers in 1968, when she won the Tony for originating Eleanor of Aquitaine in "The Lion in Winter." "I'd like to do it again. Now I'm the right age for it," says the 71-year-old actress. No fewer than seven additional Tony nominations have taken the sting out of the classic roles she missed along the way. "Nora in `A Doll's House,'" she begins, adding, "Hedda, Cleopatra, and Rosalind in `As You Like It.' I played Phoebe right here at the McCarter many years ago, because my husband at the time (Ellis Rabb) was directing, and I didn't feel I could hog the big part." (Her emphasis on "hog" is all the more amusing because Harris has a cultured pearl British accent, and the word sounds delightfully incongruous in her mouth.) Now she's back at the McCarter in Emily Mann's production of "All Over." In the play, a group of people wait in a hospital corridor, outside a room in which a man is dying. There is The Wife. The Mistress. The Daughter. "None of us has a name," Harris says. "And my character, The Wife, is a strange woman. She's been put aside for 50 years, though she is still married to this dying man. But she does feel as if she's been practicing for widowhood for so many years, she has no idea what effect real widowhood will have on her. "`Maybe none,'" she says, suddenly quoting her lines. " `I've settled into a life that is comfortable, useful and interesting. You never know, though; I may have told myself all lies and I'm no more prepared for what may happen tonight or morning, than I would if he were to shake off the coma, rise up from his bed, put his arms about me, ask my forgiveness for all the years, and take me back.'" Though Harris' marriage with Rabb didn't last a lifetime, her subsequent one just might. "It was 1968," she recalls, "and my mentor, Bella Spewack (co-author of "Kiss Me, Kate") called me on the phone. `Rosie, the man you're going to marry has just walked into my living room. Get over here.' I later learned that (Spewack's husband) Sam discouraged her from making the call - `How can you know a thing like that?' - and Bella said, `Oh, it's just like casting a play.'" Apparently so. She and novelist John ("The Winter People") Ehle have been married for 32 years. Jennifer is their only child. Thus, the contented wife and mother admits, "When I was thinking about doing `All Over,' I wondered how I was going to perform it, considering that nothing in my life has prepared me for it. I am an actress," she stresses, "but I couldn't imagine not loving my daughter. But then a friend reminded me of our next door neighbor in North Carolina who wouldn't speak to her children and cut them out of her life. She's become my inspiration." So here she is, working with Michael Learned as The Mistress, and Pamela Nyberg as The Daughter. But in one way, the play will be an easy assignment. "I sit down and almost never move. I do get up when The Daughter comes over and slaps my face. Then there's a pause, and I say, `Excuse me' to Michael, and then I get up and walk across the stage and slap her back. She really hits me, and I really hit her." It's a stretch, but Rosemary Harris is used to that. For her first big break, in 1953, was playing "The Girl" in "The Seven-Year Itch" in London. "All through the run," she says, "I thought, `This is something that Marilyn Monroe should play, not I.' I was never happy. I wanted to be a tragedian, and I was stuck in this boulevard comedy. It ran and ran and ran and I couldn't get out of it. I wanted to be a classical actress. When I think of it now, I was very ungrateful."