Monday, February 06, 2006

Waiting in the Wings

With no news, and solitary-blogging, I (Chelsea) thought I'd dig into some of Tina's posts. So, sorry Tina ! Besides, it's a great article.
At age 80, Rosemary Harris is still center stage

For The Patriot Ledger
1,389 words
6 November 1999
The Patriot Ledger Quincy, MA
Run of Paper
Copyright (c) 1999 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

There's a good reason why "Waiting in the Wings" is not one of Noel Coward's better-known plays, says Rosemary Harris.

"It requires quite a few expert older actresses, and they're not always available," says Harris, one of the most expert actresses in the American theater. She is co-starring with Lauren Bacall in a new production of the show, opening on Nov. 13 at the Colonial Theater in Boston.

"Waiting in the Wings," whose cast also includes Fionnula Flanagan, Barnard Hughes, Simon Jones, Dana Ivey and Elizabeth Wilson, is one of many presentations of Coward's work being planned on both sides of the Atlantic in this centennial year of the playwright's birth. The Broadway opening of "Waiting in the Wings" is scheduled for Dec. 16, Coward's birthday.

Coward, whose writing could be arch and witty, as in the play "Private Lives," or dramatic and heartfelt, as in the film "Brief Encounter," combined those elements in "Waiting in the Wings." About a group of aging actresses living out their final years in an actors home, the play is funny and tender and most of all affectionate.

Bacall, who has the most box-office clout in the cast, was hired first and had her choice of the two leading roles, said Harris over the phone from New York. The central situation of the play is an ancient feud between two of the home's residents, May Davenport, played by Harris, and Lotta Bainbridge, played by Bacall.

"It's very clear, really, which one of us is suited to what part. I don't think there was a question. When I was asked to play May Davenport, I immediately said, of course, that's the one I would like to do."

A somewhat bitter woman who is the most acerbic of the lot, May is also the one who goes through the greatest change in the play.

Though the 15-member cast does include a couple of parts for 30- somethings, the play is dominated by characters in their 70s. Harris, who's 80, said one of the joys of this production is working with people who have become friends over the years as their careers have progressed together.

"It's a wonderful company, because almost everybody has worked with everybody else. We've all touched each other at least two or three times, which is grand."

Though she has never worked with Bacall before, "We've always been friends and always talked about working together. But we never thought it would happen."

Harris has been performing for more than 60 years, in plays ranging from Coward's lighthearted "Hay Fever" to Chekhov's deeply moving "Uncle Vanya." She has had a rich film career as well, appearing in movies as diverse as Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" and the thriller "The Boys from Brazil." She currently can be seen in the film "My Life So Far." Harris also has performed in numerous television shows, including "Death of a Salesman" and "The Holocaust."

Harris' career began in her native England. Orphaned at a young age and raised by her grandmother, she originally wanted to be a nurse. But when, at the age of 17, she discovered she was a year too young to begin working in that profession, she decided "to fill in by joining a local stock company that was in my grandmother's little town," Harris said in an accent with only a trace of her British beginnings.

"I thought I'd see if they needed an extra person. I didn't have any training or anything, but I just applied and asked if I could have an audition. They said, oh, well, we might be able to find you something.

"Gradually I worked my way into the company, and started playing leading parts. After about a year, when it became time for me to go off and do my nursing, I thought, `I'm having too much fun.' "

Eventually, Harris came to the United States. She remembers clearly the day in 1952 that she arrived here.

"It was on the same day that Gertrude Lawrence died. All the theaters were dark that night, and I was very moved. She had been playing in `The King and I' right up to the week before."

Lawrence comes to mind because her career had been so intertwined with that of Noel Coward, and because there's a character in "Waiting in the Wings," Miss Carrington, who is never seen but whose description by another character leaves no doubt as to the real actress who inspired this creation.

The tip-off is when someone remarks about Miss Carrington, "She hadn't much of a voice," and another character responds, "She hadn't much of anything really, except magic, but she had a great deal of that."

When Coward wrote "Waiting in the Wings" in the early 1960s, there weren't many roles for actresses past their prime, explained Harris.

"Television in England hadn't really got a grip the way it does now. Nowadays, actresses of this inderminate age, even if they can't make it on the stage anymore, because of their memories failing and various things, they're always able to keep their careers going by doing television.

"But, in the early '60s, that wasn't possible. You either played on the stage or you were out. And Noel Coward in the '60s had some friends who hadn't been working. So, he said, we'll have to rectify that: I'll write a play for you all."

Since the characters in "Waiting in the Wings" are theater people, the play naturally is wonderfully theatrical, with all the women, at one time or other, taking center stage in grand style.

Besides making allusions to a couple of real-life performers, Coward based the centerpiece of the plot -- the feud between May and Lotta -- on an actual scandal having to do with two actresses who were in love with the same man, said Harris.

Retiring to old-age homes supported by private charities is indeed a fact of life for English performers, she said. There, in contrast to the United States, "There is no (union) insurance, no pension. Equity never got organized enough to take money out of actors' salaries."

In researching their parts, said Harris, some of the cast members visited the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, N.J., and came to realize that the residents were faithfully "represented in this play."

Appropriately enough, the New York opening of "Waiting in the Wings" will be a benefit for the Actors Fund.

For this revival, which is being directed by Michael Langham (who directed "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"), the play has undergone some changes by writer and translator Jeremy Sams. A death has been eliminated, an Irish jig has been added, along with a medley of songs in a New Year's Eve scene.

"And I think they've made the plot between Lotta and May much stronger and deeper," said Harris.

If "Waiting in the Wings" is an accurate portrayal of the twilight years of some actors, it certainly isn't for the ones in this show. Harris herself remains busy, with much of her time these days spent making movies, a medium she said she thoroughly enjoys. Now living in Winston-Salem, N.C, and married to novelist John Ehle, she also is the mother of an actress, Jennifer Ehle. Not long ago, mother and daughter worked together, with Ralph Fiennes, on a film shot in Budapest called "The Winter People." In the picture, which was shown at last fall's Toronto Film Festival and is waiting for an American distributor, the two women play the same character at different times of her life.

With her own happy experience as an actor, it never occurred to Harris to discourage her daughter from pursuing a career in show business.

"But, you know what Noel Coward said, laughed Harris, quoting a song lyric by the playwright, " `Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington. Don't put your daughter on the stage!' "


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