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Julie Harris On The Fascinating Brontes

November 23, 1986|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

It's not very often that we get to see Julie Harris live on stage. She's one of the few performers whose combination of clarity, delicacy and perfect emotional pitch cuts through the theatrical air and thereby defines for us just what it is that makes the theater special. (She's a regular on TV's "Knots Landing," but she's not immune to the way television tends to laminate performance.)

Harris will be playing one performance of "Bronte: A Solo Portrait of Charlotte Bronte," a biographical treatment originally written as a radio piece until Harris prevailed upon William Luce to adapt it for the stage. (It's also been filmed in Ireland.) She's been playing it in and around Los Angeles since last month. Today's performance will be at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and she expects to play it regularly around town each weekend beginning in January.

"I chose Charlotte because she survived her sisters and brother and is able to give the greatest perspective on the Bronte family," Harris said. "In the space of a year, she lost Anne, Emily and Branwell, and at 37 had to face life alone with her father.

"I find the whole family absolutely fascinating--including their father, who was an illiterate Irishman who made his way to England and taught himself to read and write. He went to Oxford and became a cleric in the Church of England. He also wrote and published poetry. He married Marie Branwell, an educated woman from Yorkshire, where the family was raised.

"At the time the girls were growing up, there wasn't much for women in their position to look forward to except being nurses, cooks or governesses. They went to school to become governesses. But they all had remarkable personalities, and except for Branwell (who never got on anywhere) they had such intelligence that nothing could obscure them--Emily's teacher in Brussels said that she could've been another Napoleon.

"Charlotte had a lot to say about women's roles in addition to her own. 'It's not so bad to be single,' she observed. 'Your happiness isn't dependent on someone else.' She was proud of her independence, but she was extremely sensitive and suffered from loneliness. In some respects she was the most ordinary of the sisters, yet she lived to ask the most poignant questions: 'What did our lives mean? What did we give each other? What were we?' "

"A Dream for a Nickel," which opens Friday at the Odyssey, is a new musical that has been 10 years in the making, according to its composer-lyricist and author, Sean-Michael H. Gillis. Gillis, 40, has been a pop singer since the age of 16. (He once worked with the Benny Goodman band.) "I needed to wait this long to gain the right level of maturity," he said.

"Dream" takes place on March 9, 1933, when President Roosevelt implored people not to hoard their money. The Long Beach Pike, and a gangster's offshore gambling ship, make up the setting for what Gillis describes as "people's need to escape. The public wants to escape to the Pike, the people at the Pike want to escape to the ship."

With a cast of 27 (many former cast members of "42nd Street" and "Evita," according to Gillis) the show, ("with hummable songs, a love story--a real old-fashioned meat and potatoes musical") is budgeted at $50,000, a fairly hefty sum by Equity Waiver standards. "This is about believing and striving," Gillis said. "If you work hard enough, people will believe."

Life is a tragedy for some, a farce for others. But for some it's a musical, too.

Other openings for the week include: Friday, "Scotch and Milk" at the Inglewood Playhouse, and "The Glory of Christmas--A Living Nativity," at the Crystal Cathedral. On Saturday, "Orphans" opens at the Cassius Carter Stage of San Diego's Old Globe Theater.

LATE CUES: The American Center for Music Theater Training will host its annual opening house Thursday, Dec. 11, 7:30 p.m., at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Food, drink and entertainment will be provided, the latter consisting of Broadway highlights by Center alumnae. Information: (213) 972-7574.

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