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Juggling two major roles, Harriet Harris has returned to the Berkshires in earnest

Harriet Harris is shown during a 2020 filming of "Eleanor," a role she'll be reprising onstage for live audiences at Barrington Stage Company.
Harriet Harris is shown during a 2020 filming of "Eleanor," a role she'll be reprising onstage for live audiences at Barrington Stage Company.Barrington Stage Company

Harriet Harris’s voice is quaking. The words still make her choke up: “This is my favorite spot. I used to come here all the time.”

It’s a line from Mark St. Germain’s “Eleanor,” a solo show in which she plays former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. While the character is referring to a place she loved to frequent, the line made Harris think about how deeply she missed the physical gathering space of live theater during the pandemic-induced shutdown.

“I burst into tears the first time I read it aloud” — during a reading of “Eleanor” last fall that was filmed on a stage with no audience — ”because I thought, God, here we are. We’ve all got masks on. We’re in this empty theater with a ghost light,” Harris says quietly over the phone. “It’s just great to be back now. It was thrilling to walk through the stage door for the first time. You feel like you understand what your purpose is again. It’s very hard for anybody to not get to do what they love to do.”

With live shows cranking back into gear, Harris is having quite the theatrical homecoming. This summer, audiences are being treated to a one-two punch from the Tony Award winner in a pair of high-profile productions in the Berkshires. Since June 18, Harris has been playing the imperious, silver-tongued Lady Bracknell in Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which wraps up performances this weekend at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge. Then, with less than a week off between plays, Harris will command Barrington Stage Company’s main stage in Pittsfield in a full production of “Eleanor,” running July 16 through Aug. 7.

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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’ve not yet received my certificate or my scepter.”

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For a few years now, Harris has been spending more time in Western Mass. — and winding up on local stages more frequently (including “Not Waving” at Williamstown Theatre Festival, “Sweeney Todd” at Barrington Stage Company, and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” at Berkshire Theatre Group, among other shows). Her “sweetheart” of more than three decades, Matt Sullivan, an actor who is also appearing in “Earnest,” owns a cottage in a tiny town about an hour from Stockbridge, and the two have spent their recent summers there both relaxing and working.

The juggling act has her thinking back to her days touring in repertory theater with John Houseman’s Acting Company after graduating from Juilliard. “We had three or four shows in our minds at all times,” she says. “It’s reminiscent of that, which was exciting and fun.”

Harriet Harris as Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" at Berkshire Theatre Group.
Harriet Harris as Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" at Berkshire Theatre Group.Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

Playing the deliciously domineering Lady Bracknell in “Earnest” has been a joy for her. “There’s a real competition about who’s got the strongest point of view and whose aphorism or witticism is going to be the one that sticks for the next few seconds,” Harris says. “But it’s not cutthroat. It’s lively.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is a wildly different character from the overbearing Lady Bracknell. Harris raves about Roosevelt’s legacy and her “tireless spirit.” And she hopes that audiences come to understand that what Roosevelt dedicated herself 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 just is, because she’s somebody who was striving for a better society. And we’re always going to have to be doing that. The work is never done.”

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St. Germain, the playwright, says that the more he studied Roosevelt, the more attached he became. “She was really the heart of the Roosevelt White House. She would be the one to argue with [Franklin] about putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps. She’d be the one to argue about civil rights. And she never backed down.”

That doesn’t mean she didn’t have her flaws and deep insecurities, Harris cautions. “You can be Eleanor Roosevelt and still be fallible,” she says. “The play is about Eleanor looking at herself and examining her own life and thinking, ‘What might I have done differently? Did I have a life that mattered? What is there still left to do, even if I’m not here?’ ”

It no doubt helps that this is the fourth time Harris has played Eleanor Roosevelt, first in one of the three plays constituting Paul Rudnick’s 2001 satire “Rude Entertainment,” and twice more on television this year and last — in the PBS “Masterpiece” series “Atlantic Crossing” and in an episode of Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood.”

“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,” Harris says. “But the interior life of each Eleanor is different.”

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Still, she says, “You can’t help but sort of draw on those previous performances because you just learn certain things about her life.”

Despite playing this cherished figure multiple times, Harris remains best known for a parade of deliciously diabolical characters on stage and screen — the camp villain Mrs. Meers in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” for which she won a Tony in 2002; the spoiled, temperamental heiress Barbara Rose in “Phantom Thread”; the scheming Felicia on “Desperate Housewives”; and, most memorably, Frasier Crane’s outrageously unscrupulous agent Bebe Glazer on “Frasier” (described by Niles as “Lady Macbeth without the sincerity” and having “morals that would raise eyebrows in the court of Caligula.”)

“Having played so many bad people and so many people with ill intent, it’s nice to be able to play a compassionate, kind-hearted character,” Harris says.

While she’s relished playing villains, Harris insists their impulses aren’t all that different from those of a benevolent character like Eleanor Roosevelt. Say what now?

“Bad girls have energy. Bad girls have drive. Bad girls have goals that other people find unreasonable. And bad girls have to have a lot of push that is unattractive in a woman. Bad girls throughout history get things done. They may not get things done that aren’t any good for anybody but themselves,” Harris says with a laugh, “but they’re highly motivated.”

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

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ELEANOR

By Mark St. Germain. Presented by Barrington Stage Company, July 16-Aug. 7. At Boyd-Quinson Stage, Pittsfield. Tickets $35-$100. 413-236-8888, barringtonstageco.org

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.