Juggling two lead roles, Harriet Harris is back in the Berkshires for good


With the resumption of live performances, Harris has a pretty theatrical comeback. This summer, audiences are treated to a Tony Award-winning stunt in a pair of high-profile productions in the Berkshires. Since June 18, Harris has played the imperious and silver-tongued Lady Bracknell in the Berkshire Theater Group production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Steadfast”, which wraps up its performances this weekend at Unicorn Theater in Stockbridge. Then, with less than a week off between plays, Harris will lead the Barrington Stage Company main stage in Pittsfield in a full production of “Eleanor,” July 16 through August 7.

So, should we call Harris the “Queen of the Berkshires” this summer? Don’t schedule the coronation yet, she jokes. “Apparently it’s not an actual title. I have not yet received my certificate or my scepter.

For a few years now, Harris has been spending more time at Western Mass. – and more frequently found on local stages (including “Not Waving” at the Williamstown Theater Festival, “Sweeney Todd” at Barrington Stage Company and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains Everything for You” at the Berkshire Theater Group, among other shows). Her more than three-decade-long “sweetheart” Matt Sullivan, an actor who also appears in “Earnest,” owns a cottage in a small town about an hour from Stockbridge, and the two have spent their last summers there getting to know each other. relax and work. .

The act of juggling reminds him of his days touring the repertory theater with John Houseman’s acting company after graduating from Juilliard. “We had three or four shows in mind at all times,” she says. “It is reminiscent of that, which was exciting and fun.”

Harriet Harris as Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Serious” at the Berkshire Theater Group.Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

Playing the deliciously domineering Lady Bracknell in “Earnest” was a joy to her. “There is a real competition to see who has the strongest point of view and which aphorism or joke is going to be the one that stays in the next few seconds,” said Harris. “But it’s not ruthless. It’s alive.

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is a very different character from domineering Lady Bracknell. Harris raves about Roosevelt’s legacy and his “indefatigable spirit.” And she hopes the public will understand that what Roosevelt devoted himself to – social change and social justice – will always be a Sisyphean struggle. “We never have to think about how to make Eleanor Roosevelt relevant. She is simply, because she is someone who fought for a better society. And we will always have to do it. The job is never done.

St. Germain, the playwright, said the more he studied Roosevelt, the more he attacked himself. “She was truly the heart of the Roosevelt White House. She would be the one to talk to [Franklin] to put Japanese-Americans in internment camps. She would be the one arguing about civil rights. And she never backed down.

That doesn’t mean she didn’t have her flaws and deep insecurities, Harris warns. “You can be Eleanor Roosevelt and be fallible,” she said. “The play is about Eleanor looking at herself, examining her own life and thinking, ‘What could I have done differently? Have I had a life that mattered? What still needs to be done, even though I’m not here? “

It definitely helps that this is the Fourth times Harris played Eleanor Roosevelt, first in one of three pieces constituting Paul Rudnick’s 2001 satire “Rude Entertainment”, and twice more on television this year and last year – in the PBS series “Masterpiece” “Atlantic Crossing” and in an episode of “Hollywood” by Ryan Murphy.

“I think there are similarities in our physicality that people see. I have blue eyes. I have big teeth. I use my hands a lot, ”says Harris. “But each Eleanor’s inner life is different.”

Still, she says, “You can’t help but build on those previous performances because you’re just learning a few things about her life.”

Although she has played this darling figure several times, Harris remains best known for a parade of delightfully evil characters on stage and on screen – camp villain Ms. Meers in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” for which she won an award. Tony in 2002; spoiled and capricious heiress Barbara Rose in “Phantom Thread”; the plot Felicia on “Desperate Housewives”; and, most memorable, Frasier Crane’s outrageously unscrupulous agent, Bebe Glazer on “Frasier” (described by Niles as “Lady Macbeth without sincerity” and having “a morality that would raise eyebrows at Caligula’s court.”)

“Having played so many bad people and so many bad-intentioned people, it’s nice to be able to play a compassionate and caring character,” said Harris.

While she enjoys playing baddies, Harris insists their impulses aren’t all that different from a benevolent character like Eleanor Roosevelt. Say what now?

“Bad girls have energy. Bad girls get practice. Bad girls have goals that others find unreasonable. And bad girls have to have a lot of pressure that isn’t attractive in a woman. Bad girls throughout history get things done. They may not do things that are not good for anyone other than themselves, ”says Harris with a laugh,“ but they’re very motivated.

“I think that’s part of the attraction with Eleanor. She is a woman with incredible dynamism. It’s just fun to feel like you’re trying to be the mistress of your own destiny.

ELEANOR

By Marc Saint-Germain. Presented by Barrington Stage Company, July 16-August. 7. At Boyd-Quinson Stadium, Pittsfield. Tickets from $ 35 to $ 100. 413-236-8888, barringtonstageco.org

Christopher Wallenberg can be contacted at [email protected].

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