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Much more than 'just some old lady'

September 28, 2007|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

SAN DIEGO -- "I had an anxiety dream the other night," says actress Rosemary Harris, just before the first preview of "Oscar and the Pink Lady." "I was in the middle of a performance and then all the characters in the play suddenly began coming out from the wings, handing me pieces of paper. And I said to them, 'Sorry, but I don't think you belong here. You know, this isn't helpful.' But they kept coming nonetheless."

She laughs and then adds, "Ah, well, if I do forget lines, I just hope people will think, well, it's just some old lady. . . ."

Just some old lady indeed. At 80, the luminous Harris, a Tony and Emmy award winner and Oscar nominee, is venturing into one of the most challenging and emotionally demanding roles of her long and varied career on both sides of the Atlantic. At a point when most actors her age are coasting -- especially if they've managed to snag a featured role in a popular film franchise (like her Aunt May Parker in "Spider-Man") -- Harris is alone onstage for 90 minutes playing "Granny Pink," a volunteer in a children's cancer ward who strikes up an unusual friendship with 10-year-old Oscar, one of the hospital's feistier patients.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
'Oscar and the Pink Lady': The reservation number for the San Diego production of "Oscar and the Pink Lady," Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's one-woman play starring Rosemary Harris at the Old Globe Theatre's Cassius Carter Centre Stage in Balboa Park, is (619) 234-5623. An incorrect number ran in a feature about Harris in Friday's Calendar.

In fact, Harris is called on to play a pageant of characters who are conjured up in the letters that Oscar writes to God to cope with his perilous circumstances. They include the boy's precocious reactions to his doctor, his shell-shocked parents, his friends in the ward, and especially to the astringent Granny, who dispels his blues with her colorful (fictional) past as a female wrestler vanquishing nemeses like The Butcher From Bognor and Thunder Thighs.

"I found it utterly delightful, a really extraordinary piece of theater," says Harris, imposingly erect on a velvet settee in the Old Globe Theatre's plush VIP room, which accentuates her hair pulled back in a bun, porcelain skin and piercing blue eyes. "I think audiences will find it quite funny, surprisingly so. And I hope they come away with more of an appreciation for living. I know I have just by learning it. This young boy lays it on the line in a very simple and direct manner."

Nearby is the show's British director, Frank Dunlop, Harris' longtime friend and collaborator, who edited the play from the slim novella by the Belgian writer Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt ("Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran"). Dunlop says he first approached Harris several years ago with an English translation that had not been to her liking. Using a new translation by Stephane Laporte, Dunlop further developed the piece with Angela Lansbury, who performed the play in a benefit reading last March at the Geffen Playhouse. When Lansbury chose not to continue, the director turned to Harris, whom he had directed in a number of productions, mainly classics, in New York and London.

"Rosemary is not afraid to go too far and risk failure. She has an astonishing ability to be on the knife edge all the time," Dunlop says. "Within seconds, she can move an audience from laughter to tears. She can morph from a senior citizen to a 10-year-old boy. And although it's very serious subject matter -- a kid with inoperable cancer -- Rosemary makes this show about optimism rather than pessimism, about the joys of life rather than its sorrows, without ever dipping into sentimentality."

Indeed, formidable women are something of a Harris specialty, among them her 1966 Tony-winning Eleanor of Aquitaine in "The Lion in Winter," her Emmy turn as George Sand in the 1974 miniseries "Notorious Woman," her 1979 Golden Globe for a Jewish doctor's wife in "The Holocaust" and her Oscar-nominated performance as T.S. Eliot's mother-in-law in 1994's "Tom and Viv."

Harris, however, is just as adept in playing damaged women as she proved as Blanche in a 1973 revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire." Whereas Blanche has no one to turn to in her utter despair -- "it's the loneliest part in the world" -- Granny Pink, and Oscar for that matter, transcend their troubles through their belief in God. "Whoever anybody's definition of God may be, there is that equation in the play," Harris says. "It's not about losing but about winning, about joy not despair or degradation."

Wishing to keep her own feelings about God private ("they do change from time to time"), Harris notes that she had a "Granny Pink" in her life. After the sudden death of her mother when Harris was 14, she and her two sisters were raised by her grandmother and her father, a British air force officer. "It was Gram and her sister, who nurtured and cherished us, always supported us in whatever we wanted to do," recalls Harris, who spent her earliest years in India, where her father had been stationed, then attended Anglo-Catholic convent schools in England. The stage came as an afterthought to Harris, her ambitions directed toward nursing and later physiotherapy.

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