Thursday, May 17, 1990

A duck with gills

Rosemary Harris, Blissfully Resisting Retirement for The Lure of 'Hay Fever'

Megan Rosenfeld
30 March 1986
The Washington Post
(Copyright 1986)

It is immediately clear that Rosemary Harris is an actress. Her speech, her gestures, her posture, even her way of putting on a big black hat, resonate with a heightened presence. When she tries to recall a forgotten name, her eyes search the corners of the ceiling, as though the missing memory will float down from the rafters like a feather.

She opens here this week in Noel Coward's "Hay Fever," a comedy that for years has been a staple of summer stock, now rejuvenated in this Broadway production. Harris plays Judith Bliss, an aging actress who finds that retirement cannot contain her dramatic urges. Harris loves the part, which she got in a typically theatrical way.

"I was leaving the theater {in New York} where I was playing in 'Pack of Lies'," she said with relish. "And I was coming around the corner and this man was standing there with two friends. And he said, I'm Roger Peters and I own the rights to "Hay Fever" and I'm going to produce it and would you like to play Judith Bliss?' And I said I've always wanted to play Judith Bliss!"

Harris has only recently felt comfortable in film or television, so her career has been largely devoted to the theater, and as a result she is not as well known as, say, her one-time classmate Joan Collins. But she has fashioned a remarkable Anglo-American résumé, playing Desdemona and Ophelia, Beatrice and Portia (to name a few roles) in England, "Judith" in Michigan, Eleanor in "The Lion in Winter" in New York (for which she won a Tony.) She was Bertha Weiss in "Holocaust" on television, and George Sand in "Notorious Woman." Her choices have kept her vaulting between her native England and her home here with regularity.

"When I'm here I miss England and when I'm there I miss America," she said. "The last time I was in England I bought myself a very nice red address book in Bond Street that said Home and Abroad.' And I took it home and thought, I'm going to be very methodical and businesslike, and I started trying to decide which was which. And it became so traumatic I threw the address book out."

She shuttles not only between England and America, but between North Carolina, where she lives, and acting jobs in New York, Washington or Los Angeles. When she married writer John Ehle in 1969, she moved to his home in North Carolina with every intention of staying there permanently. But she, like Judith Bliss, found retirement occasionally resistible. Within a year, when her now-16-year-old daughter was 3 weeks old, she packed up her husband and infant and went to Los Angeles to star in a production of "Idiot's Delight" opposite Jack Lemmon.

Lemmon, of course, is also playing in town, and Harris delights in that sort of coincidence, finding some sort of comfort at fates intersecting. When she played Mrs. Ramsay in a television production of "To the Lighthouse," for example, she was on location in Cornwall. "My mother died in Cornwall when I was 14, and Virginia Woolf's mother died when she was 14, and my daughter was 14."

In 1956, she almost rented an apartment (she is Americanized enough not to say "flat") in Queen's Gate in London from which she could see a girl's school where the students wore purple berets and blazers. Then unmarried, she would daydream about one day having a little girl who would go to the school and wear a purple blazer.

But instead of renting the apartment she accepted an offer from the Old Vic to travel to New York in a production of "Troilus and Cressida." She played Cressida, and Brooks Atkinson said that her "slow, sensual, treacherous strumpet is everything that Shakespeare had in mind." But over 25 years later she happened to be back in London doing a production of "All My Sons," and this time she had a 12-year-old daughter who needed a school. And what was the one school that took in a foreigner late in the term?

"I couldn't believe it," Harris said. "I had to go all the way round, go to America to seek my fortune and fate, and it brought me back to Queen's Gate."

Harris, now 55, is a fair-skinned blond who on this day has tucked her hair under a black beret. She disappears into an adjoining room to apply false eyelashes and rouge for photographs, and returns looking the picture of glamor. Later she takes out a pair of eyeglasses hooked together with safety pins.

"I am a Virgo," she announces at one point. "I love menial tasks, like scrubbing floors. I found myself scrubbing the ceiling the other night in New York and I thought this is a bit much ... But I never get anything finished because I'm not very organized."

Harris was born in England because her mother came back from India to have her there. They returned to the subcontinent, where Harris' father was in the Royal Air Force, and lived there until shortly before the second world war began. Her interest in theater began early, under the tutelage of a sister eight years her senior who put on plays and cast her in all the nonleading roles. "My first role was a nonspeaking part ... My sister was playing Salome with the seven, uh, net curtains. On the record the last veil is about to come off and then they say and the door opened and the queen entered.' I was the queen. It was a very dramatic moment."

She went immediately from school to a succession of weekly repertory companies, playing more than 90 parts in about two years. After a year at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she got a job as an understudy. But two years later, at the age of 22, she made her New York debut in "The Climate of Eden," and seven months later her London debut in "The Seven Year Itch."

It was while she was in that play that she met Noel Coward. "It was opening night at the Theatre Royal in Brighton, and there was a tap on my dressing room door and there he stood! He was such a kind man, he never said anything hurtful to anybody. He had a little phrase he would say with great sincerity- it was something like 'What a performance!' Of course that could mean anything... On my opening night in London six weeks later he sent a telegram." She still has that telegram.

"But you know, life is funny. Shortly before he died I was invited to a party in New York for him. I was introduced and he said 'Oh, how lovely, I've always heard so much about you, I've always wanted to meet you...'"

"Hay Fever," first produced in 1925, was inspired by Coward's observations at the home of actress Laurette Taylor and her husband, playwright Hartley Manners, which he visited as a 21-year-old trying to make some headway in the theater. The Mannerses, Coward biographer Sheridan Morley wrote last year, "were by all accounts a highly strung family, deeply theatrical and prone to elaborate after-dinner charades and word games which always ended in hysteria while the entire family abandoned their guests to find their own coats and way home."

Judith Bliss, her novelist husband (played here by Roy Dotrice), and her son and daughter, all "artificial to the point of lunacy," have each invited a guest to spend the weekend at their country estate. The games, intrigues and insults pummel the hapless guests into pudding, while the histrionic family runs rampant.

It is a role that is both exhausting and exhilarating, Harris said. "My dressing room {in New York} is one flight up and if there had been a camera at the top of the stairs you'd see this bag lady sort of galumphing up {before the play}, puffing and panting and heaving herself up the stairs, and after the first act curtain this vision in pink chiffon, jumping up the stairs two at a time, whistling and singing."

The atmosphere backstage after the show is so giddy that Harris' daughter Jennifer, who is at school in Michigan, asked her not to call from her dressing room, where she has the habit of passing the phone around to whoever is there. "She said it was rather like talking into a champagne glass," said Harris.

Again, there is a fortuitous coincidence: Harris, like Judith Bliss, is an actress married to a novelist. "My sister-in-law saw the play recently and said How nice to see you in a delightful parody of yourself.' She did say delightful."

Harris will leave "Hay Fever" - "alas" - at the end of its six-week run here to prepare for a new play, this time at the National Theatre in London, playing opposite Sir John Mills in a play called "The Petition." It may be a while before she gets back to North Carolina, where she and her husband and daughter split their time between a rambling brick mansion in Winston-Salem and a log cabin near Asheville.

She is quite happy there, planting and planning, cooking some of recipes that fill drawers in her kitchen and teaching a master class at the North Carolina School of the Arts, which Ehle helped found. She has strong nest-making instincts, she said, but there is always the lure of an irresistible part.

"When John and I married we agreed we would not be separated unless it was a part I really couldn't live without playing. Fortunately he rather likes to travel, and he can take his work with him ...

"When I'm on stage it's really like a duck in water," she said, cheerfully mixing metaphors. "By this time I really feel I've grown gills."

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