The Perfect Wife

The Perfect Wife The two actresses who have contended for the greatest number of Tony Awards share a common artistry — and, more surprisingly, the same surname. Julie Harris scored wins on half of her ten nominations; Rosemary Harris won once, the first of her eight times at bat.

The two actresses who have contended for the greatest number of Tony Awards share a common artistry — and, more surprisingly, the same surname. Julie Harris scored wins on half of her ten nominations; Rosemary Harris won once, the first of her eight times at bat.

Julie, flying America's colors, and Rosemary, sporting the British Union Jack, have almost never ventured from the rich and rarefied turf of Tony eligibility. Julie made the jump Off-Broadway only once, into The Fiery Furnace at the Lucille Lortel, in 1993 — 48 years into her theatrical career! — while Rosemary made the rounds of smaller houses earlier during her seven years (1960-1967) of rep work with Ellis Rabb, her first husband.

Now, Rosemary's back Off-Broadway in Edward Albee's All Over at the Gramercy Theatre, giving the caliber of performance that could have won her Tony's heart — and, possibly, vote — were it not for theatre-size technicalities and real-estate considerations.

She is identified in the play simply as The Wife, a still and stately widow-in-the-making huddled in a two-hour, actual-time death watch around the bed of a wealthy and powerful patriarch. The other characters are likewise parsimoniously pegged — The Son (Patrick Garner), The Daughter (Pamela Nyberg), The Mistress (Michael Learned), The Best Friend (John Carter), The Doctor (Bill Moor) and The Nurse (Myra Carter) — and the drama consists of aggravated interplay among these decidedly unloving dearly-beloved.

"In some ways," Variety critic Charles Isherwood noted, "the play is more a piece of music, an oratorio for seven soloists, than a drama," and, he says, it is "crowned by a majestic, ultimately heartrending performance from the invaluable Rosemary Harris." Ben Brantley, in The New York Times, took that a step further, christening the actress "her generation's ideal interpreter of Mr. Albee's patrician women," basing that claim-to-fame on only one previous Tony-nominated Albee outing: the wealthy matron in the 1996 revival of A Delicate Balance. Indeed, John Lee Beatty's living-room set for the latter seems to be echoed in the dying-room set Thomas Lynch created for All Over.

Rosemary Harris sees the similarity in this setting and even detects a throughline connecting the two wives she has played for Albee — "I think they might be first cousins," she quips — but she doesn't rule the roost here as she did in A Delicate Balance. For one thing, she's the discarded estranged wife, a stranger in the strange land that is her love rival's home. "Michael Learned and I have our territory to play. She rules as much as I do. This is her home where she's living with my husband, and I'm the interloper. As I say in the play, I can lose my husband while he's alive, but, when he's not alive, he's mine again. I guess that's my philosophy: As soon as the poor man is dead, he belongs to me."

Since her character is very much the outsider, a powerful quietness consumes the actress. "I don't move much in All Over — I think I only get up once, to slap my daughter's face," she says, not exaggerating a lot. "I suggested the stillness to the director [Emily Mann, who got this production up on its feet last spring at Princeton's McCarter Theatre]. I said, 'In this situation, wouldn't it be a good idea if I didn't move?' And she said, 'Fine.' Then Michael said, 'Well, I think I should stake my claim over near the fireplace' because that's obviously where she has been sitting in her vigil. That's how the two of us ended up on each side of the stage. She does, of course, move about more, but, as it's not my room and not my house, I don't feel I have the right to wander around in it. In the original production in 1971, The Wife walks all over, and I said, 'I don't think that's very real.'

"Emily, bless her, bought it. She's a dream to work with, a true collaborator. Elaine Stritch once said, 'A director must want his actors to succeed more than himself. He must put them first.' Emily does that. She wants us to succeed, and, therefore, we do our best."

In the play's closing moments, Harris throws reserve to the wind and goes full-throttle dramatically — a turnabout made easy for her, she says, by the text. "Edward is so brilliant as a playwright that he does it for you. It all slowly builds up. You don't suddenly have to pull a rabbit out of the hat. It's always coming from somewhere earlier in the play.

"I know that every night we do strike chords in the play that reverberate among members of the audience. There are very few people who haven't been touched by such a situation, who haven't sat at a deathbed vigil, and it must evoke memories. It may give people pain because it brings back their own suffering, but I think that it is a healing kind of pain."

—By Monty Arnold