Chicago theater often is perceived as a kind of giant theater graduate school — a place for young artists to find opportunity, refine their craft and attract attention from elsewhere. There is truth to that image. But sometimes, an older actor from out of town will discover Chicago theater later in life, when the need for career development is a thing of the past and has been replace by a desire to do work of substance for an appreciative audience.
Harris threw her considerable weight — she won more Tony Awards than any other American actor, dating back to "I Am a Camera" in 1952 — behind Victory Gardens Theater and, more particularly, the playwright Claudia Allen.
In 1999, Harris took the leading role in Allen's play, "Winter," a piece about dementia and its impact on those who love the sufferers thereof. It is an issue that only has gained more import since Allen wrote the play. Harris played opposite Mike Nussbaum, the current dean of Chicago actors.
Nussbaum's character was incontinent and wheelchair bound. Harris' character was a woman who initially was in far better shape than the man she loved, but always had refused to marry. But then life reversed everything, as we all know it can do.
I carry a clear memory of Harris in that role: warm, earnest, delightful, honest. She was, of course, playing a senior citizen, but she also carried the youthfulness and fresh-faced spirit that defined much of her career. And I remember how much Allen, then a busy Victory Gardens ensemble member, appreciated Harris' endorsement. She'd sent the great actress her script, cold. Harris had answered with unexpected warmth. And she sold a lot of subscription tickets to Victory Gardens that year.
Harris had such a good time in "Winter," she made a commitment to come back to Chicago in 2001 to star in another Allen play, "Fossils," a play about two elderly Michigan women who develop an attachment to each other. This time things did not go so well.
One Saturday night, Harris, who was then 75, did not show up for her call at the theater. A Victory Gardens staffer went to her apartment where the actress was discovered semi-conscious. She had to be hospitalized and Victory Gardens had to re-cast that role. We all thought that was the last we would see of Harris on a Chicago stage.
But in 2003, Harris said she would come back yet again in a third Allen play, "Hanging Fire." Alas, it did not work out, despite every intention and despite Victory Gardens postponing the show for a year in order to give Harris more time to recover. Allen and her director, Sandy Shinner, very much wanted her. The play was about a stroke victim. It had been written for her.
But Harris did not sufficiently recover her health and the show was replaced in the season by "Trying," which starred another gifted elderly actor, Fritz Weaver. Harris, Shinner recently recalled, came to see it in New York.
Earlier in her career, Harris had played Chicago with her famous one-woman show, "The Belle of Amherst." But her later commitment to Allen's plays and a theater with less than 200 seats somehow seemed more special and particular. As things turned out, they book-ended one of the great stage acting careers of the last century. Alas, the Harris golden era in Chicago was not as long as we all would have wished.
In a conversation the other day, Shinner said she could not believe that Harris was not still around.
During "Fossils," Harris sat down with then-Tribune critic Richard Christiansen and recounted her long career, pretty much show by show. There were stories of James Dean and Hollywood and, of course, an ode to a long love affair with the stages of America.
"Well, I like to keep busy," the no-nonsense Harris said to Christiansen, by way of explaining her presence. "I love acting in the theater, but the more I do it, the less I know."