Julie Harris, Demurely Taking a Well-Earned Bow
Sunday, December 4, 2005
WEST CHATHAM, Mass. "No," Julie Harris says quickly. "No-no-no."
She's laughing and shaking her head, a kind of oh-my-God expression on her face. Make no mistake -- the answer is no.
The question, which doesn't seem all that outrageous, is this: Doesn't the most celebrated stage actress of the past half-century, the first lady of the American theater, have a nice trophy case for all her prizes? After all, there's lots of room in her prosperous, tree-sheltered house here on Cape Cod. And in her long, diligent and distinguished career, she's won her share of hardware -- for starters, five best actress Tony Awards, more than any other performer. (She'll be adding to her haul this weekend as a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.)
But Harris, whose 80th birthday was Friday, is one of the least starry of stars. She's been a celebrated name since 1950, when she opened on Broadway in "The Member of the Wedding," as a 24-year-old actress playing Frankie Addams, a lonely and motherless 12-year-old tomboy in a desperate quest for "the 'we' of me." But she seems embarrassed by talk of marquees and ovations and a legendary career.
(In the end, she does offer a look at her Tonys, which include a sixth that she received in 2002 for lifetime achievement. They reside on a very crowded curio stand in a back room.)
Harris made her New York debut at 19 in a short-lived 1945 play called "It's a Gift." Over the next 56 years, she appeared in 30 Broadway shows, made close to a dozen national tours and played a number of regional productions. Then in 2001, during an engagement in Chicago, she suffered a stroke, and a resultant battle with aphasia has left her forever struggling to express herself. It's been a bitter blow for a woman whose lifework was the conveying of words and ideas.
"I wish I could -- I wish I could speak now all the time," she says simply. "But I can't. I can't."
Aphasia is the partial or total loss of the ability to use or understand words. It can impede one's comprehension or, as in Harris's case, the power of expression. Studies have found that rehabilitation efforts are generally more successful with younger stroke patients.
This is the third time, and the third place, that we have sat to talk. The first was in 1999 in Fort Lauderdale, as her tour of "The Gin Game," co-starring Charles Durning, was about to move to the Kennedy Center. The second was early this year, when she traveled alone to Washington to attend the opening of the Ford's Theatre production of "The Member of the Wedding."
In each of the conversations, she has expressed little fascination with her own past, preferring to concentrate on current endeavors and future projects. Six years ago, she was plotting tours, productions in Seattle and Chicago, and a return to Broadway -- enough to keep her working for the next several seasons. Although Harris has made acclaimed appearances in films and on television, she always has been a creature of the stage.
And that is still true, although she can no longer work there. She keeps track of reviews in newspapers and trade publications and makes frequent trips to New York theaters. She's seen some things she really liked here on Cape Cod, as well as in Boston. "I am a wonderful audience," she says, and several times she consults a tiny red book labeled "Theatre Journal," in which all her enchanted evenings are recorded.
In addition to theatergoing, her reading list is another favorite subject. In the course of 90 minutes in her cozy sunroom, she gets to her feet at least 10 times to display a photo of an actor friend, retrieve a clipped-out book review or consult a volume she's been reading. The stroke has left her "a little bit hesitant" on her feet, but an actress needs her props, and she's bursting to discuss her enthusiasms.