Monday, May 21, 1990

"Return of a Reigning Queen"

Return of a Reigning Queen
Simon Saltzman
February 13, 2002
U.S. 1 Newspaper
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The place is Afghanistan 1934, the northwest frontier territory, what was once a part of India. Upon a makeshift stage a family-staged theatrical is in progress. The seductive "Dance of the Seven Veils" is reaching its climax and Princess Salome's seventh veil is about to drop. Standing in the wings, Queen Herodias gets her cue. In high dudgeon, she makes her grand entrance. "I had no words to speak, but I put my nose in the air, kicked my train, and made my way slowly across the stage, looking with disgust at the King and Salome and made my exit. Never underestimate the power of a non-speaking role.

"This is for me. I love it," Rosemary Harris recalls thinking, as she recalls her bravura non-professional theatrical debut at age 4. For those curious: Rosemary's 12-year-old sister Pam, draped in living-room curtains, played Salome. As a reigning queen of the professional theater on both sides of the Atlantic for the past 50 years, with appearances in more than 150 roles, Harris would acquire a more authoritatively regal countenance long before she would win a Tony Award in 1966 for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine ("I was much too young, but I'm the right age now") in "The Lion in Winter."

Radiant, charming, and a delightfully chatty Virgo (September 19), Harris is, despite a full day's rehearsal behind her, gracious and warm as we talk in a cozy corner of the McCarter Theater. She is in rehearsal for Edward Albee's controversial 1971 play "All Over," directed by Emily Mann. But it's far from all over for Harris, who manages to return to the stage and screen, season after season, and Tony nomination after Tony nomination. It comes as no surprise to hear that Albee was especially keen on her to play the wife in "All Over," as she won a Tony nomination for her role as Agnes in Albee's "A Delicate Balance," the acclaimed 1996 Broadway revival directed by Gerald Gutierrez. With seven Tony nominations during her career, Harris is second only to Julie Harris.

Yet at the 2001 Tony awards ceremony when Harris was nominated for best actress for "Waiting in the Wings," she says, "I just sat there and prayed that I wouldn't win. It would have been just awful." This was the year when both Harris and her daughter, Jennifer Ehle, nominated for "The Real Thing," were competing in the same category. "If I won, I would have been the only person on that stage to say I wished I wasn't. But to my great relief, Jennifer won," she says. "I could see my husband John (Ehle) beaming as the camera swept passed us and focused on Jennifer."

Now Harris is deep into deciphering the enigmatic text of one of Albee's least understood and perhaps one of his under-appreciated plays. "It is time for a reappraisal of this beautiful play while his shares are riding high," she says, noting that "not one word of the script has been changed."

One of the most heralded dramatists of the 20th century, Albee has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years that began with "Three Tall Women" (1994) and last year with "The Play About the Baby." There is, in fact, something of an unofficial Albee festival going on with two new plays "The Goat or Who is Sylvia," and "Occupant" soon to open on Broadway and Off-Broadway respectively.

I asked Harris what aspect of "All Over" she found the most compelling. "It's the heightened language. Unlike so many modern pedestrian scripts with everyday speak, getting your mind, your thoughts and your tongue around the curlicues of Edward's mind, is like getting your mind around Shakespeare. You've got to keep the syntax in your mind with all the sub-clauses and sub-sub-clauses and remember what you're going for at the end of the sentence. It's fun to do while your brain will still do it," she says, holding up the script and showing me the long speeches she is mastering.

"I love the part of the Wife because I feel already acquainted with her. I think she is very much like Agnes (in `A Delicate Balance') who I think would behave in very similar ways if she were in these circumstances and if her husband had left her. Agnes would have probably turned into this woman."

"All Over" is set at a prominent lawyer's deathbed vigil. Gathered together in close quarters, family members, including the dying patriarch's long-term mistress, embark on an evening-long confessional as they are forced to confront the slippery truths and variable meanings of love.

Actors prepare not only by trying to get inside of the mind of the character, but also by drawing on emotional truths and circumstances from their own life. Certainly a life in the theater can foster unusual relationships that allow its people to connect, break up, and reconnect with each other. Although Harris' marriage to actor and director Ellis Rabb ended in 1967, shortly before she met Ehle, it did not end their artistic relationship. Writer Bella Spiwak, whom Harris says, "loved playing matchmaker," introduced Ehle to Harris and "it was "love at first sight." They were married in 1967, and Jennifer was born two years later.

That Jennifer was somehow not told about her mother's first marriage is another charming story. "It just never came up," says Harris, "and Jennifer was happy adoring her `Uncle Ellis.'" It was at a party that Ellis gave for his friends with children that the truth casually came out. "You weren't married to Uncle Ellis, were you Mommy?," asked Jennifer. "Of course she was," chimed in Zoe Caldwell, "now run along and play." From that day on, Jennifer called Ellis "Daddy Too."

Harris's theatrical world may appear to some to take on shades of Noel Coward's "Design for Living." Harris was directed by Rabb in "A Streetcar Named Desire," at Lincoln Center in 1973, and again in 1975 when he directed her in "The Royal Family," which played at the McCarter prior to Broadway. "It was actually John, who suggested I work again with Ellis. They got along famously." Ironically Michael Learned, who is playing the Mistress in "All Over," appeared in many of Rabb's productions at ACT. "Michael and I played many of the same roles, she on the West Coast and me in New York. We both loved and admired Ellis, who died two years ago. We've always had this connection and it's lovely to finally work on the same stage with Michael."

Learned, last seen at the McCarter in Richard Greenberg's "Safe as Houses," appeared in the national tour of Albee's "Three Tall Women," in the role originated by Myra Carter. Myra Carter returns to McCarter as the Nurse in "All Over." And John Carter (no relation), another alumnus of "A Delicate Balance," also appeared in Albee's "Finding the Sun" and "Fragments" at Signature Theater. If the cast list begins to sound incestuous, there is the fresh presence of John Christopher Jones, acclaimed for his role as Scrooge in McCarter's "A Christmas Carol;" Pamela Nyberg, who was understudy to Zoe Wanamaker in McCarter's "Electra;" and William Biff McGuire, a distinguished veteran of the American stage. Playwright Albee had a hand in the casting.

Probably no other play by Albee divided New York critics as much as the 1971 premiere of "All Over." About the Broadway production, directed by John Gielgud, starring Colleen Dewhurst and Jessica Tandy, Clive Barnes wrote: "It is a lovely, poignant, and deeply felt play." However, Walter Kerr wrote "It is remote, detached, and non-committal." "All Over" closed at the Martin Beck Theater after 42 performances. (Peggy Ashcroft and Angela Lansbury appeared the following year in London under Peter Hall's direction),

Some of the criticism focused on the original production's abstract, black-box set, that kept its character in a nebulous nowhere. "For this production, Edward [Albee] insisted that the set be designed to look like somebody's bedroom. I think that this will ground the play and help the characters seem more real," says Harris.

"Albee was very young when he wrote this and yet he was able to get inside of the mind of a woman who was abandoned by her husband. I also liked the idea of being directed, in this play, by a woman. I am often wary of directors that I don't know, but I trusted Emily from the moment I met her.

"I think Emily understands this play so beautifully. You know I'm not a very nice person in the play," says Harris, who recalls how she was once told by Sir Laurence Olivier that "you must always love your character." It came as a shock to Harris when her sister, backstage after seeing "A Delicate Balance," told her, "You're such a horror, aren't you?"

While this McCarter Theater production marks the first major revival of Albee's 1971 play, it also marks Harris' return to the theater for which she has especially fond memories. Except, she notes, "there was no Palmer Square when I was here before." Her appearance at McCarter in the all-star -- Eva LeGallienne, George Grizzard, Sam Levene, Joseph Maher and Mary Louise Wilson -- 1975 revival of the George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber comedy "The Royal Family," directed by Rabb, is fondly remembered. But it is her many appearances in McCarter's very first full season of plays -- 1960 to '61 -- that is remembered as historic.

By that time, Harris had already appeared with such imposing and prominent actors as Laurence Olivier, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud, Jack Lemmon, Jason Robards, and Robert Preston. On television, she played Olivia in "Twelfth Night" (1957) and the wife marked for death in "Dial M For Murder" (1958). In 1960, Harris and Rabb had spawned the APA (Associated Producing Artists), a roaming classical repertory company.

"Because we had no home we were not able to get a grant from the Ford Foundation that called us peripatetic," she says laughing heartily. She says it was the first time she had ever heard the word. "We were so grateful when Milton Lyon, executive director of the McCarter, approached us to bring our repertory to the theater for its first full season," recalls Harris. Perusing the roster of 13 plays that the APA performed that season, she says "I was in nine of them, including `Man and Superman,' `Anatol,' `The Sea Gull,' `Twelfth Night,' and `As You Like It.'" The company soon moved to New York as the APA-Phoenix, playing two years at the Lyceum.

Born in England, Harris spent her infancy and early childhood in India, where her father was stationed in the military. The family went back to England when war broke out. Tragically, Harris was 14 when her mother died of pneumonia and 18 when her father died of thrombosis. "But I did have the comfort of my older sister and my 10-year-old younger sister when I went to live with my `adorable' grandmother and a great aunt." Only briefly considering a career in nursing, Harris fortuitously chose the theater. She was awarded the Bancroft Gold Medal when she graduated from London's RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts).

Although Harris had already made her Broadway debut in Moss Hart's "The Climate of Eden" (1951) and her West End debut the following year in "The Seven Year Itch," she says she "became a journeyman and learned the craft" in repertory at a little company in Penzance where "I did 17 plays in 17 weeks. This was followed by seasons at the Bristol Old Vic playing Elizabeth Proctor in the British premiere of "The Crucible," and at the London Old Vic, playing Desdemona opposite Richard Burton in "Othello," and Cressida in Tyrone Guthrie's production of "Troilus and Cressida."

In 1962, Laurence Olivier invited Harris to join his small, newly-formed company, the nucleus of what was to become the National Theater, for their first season at the Chichester Festival Theater. I asked Harris if there was a specific time when she felt she had arrived or was defined as an actor. "When Sir Laurence put his mantle on me, it was like an affirmation that I had something to offer," she says. Cast in "Uncle Vanya" beside Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson, and Fay Compton she found herself asking, Can this really be happening to me? "I felt as if I was in the center court at Wimbledon hitting balls across the net to all these fabulous people." She's also remembered for her performance as Ophelia opposite Peter O'Toole in the opening production at the National Theater.

In between plays, Harris says "I like being a domestic engineer, cleaning out the attic, the garage, and tending the garden of her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina, which she shares with her husband John Ehle, a prize-winning author of 17 fiction and non-fiction books. "In my younger days, when I would visit my sister who lived in a small cottage in England with her three small children, my job -- she always left it for me -- was to sweep the leaves out of the two outdoor privies. I rather enjoyed it."

I suspect that Harris attended to that chore with the same regal aplomb that she affected so well as a four-year-old. But, surely not with her nose in the air.

-- Simon Saltzman

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