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Famed actress helps a little theater that has big ideas

By Iris FangerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 21, 2000



WELLFLEET, MASS.

The story of the survival of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT), a small summer theater on Massachusetts's Cape Cod, reads like a fairy tale, until you factor in the reality of hard work and perseverance.

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WHAT, founded by a group of actors on the harbor in the resort town of Wellfleet, Mass., 16 years ago, presents tough, intelligent dramas rather than the conventional summer-theater fare of romantic comedies and murder mysteries. It now sells out nearly all its performances from late May to early October.

Why? Enter a fairy godmother, Julie Harris, one of the most distinguished actors in America. Ms. Harris, who lives nearby in Chatham, Mass. - when she's not on the road or starring on Broadway - appeared to rave notices in the theater's opening production this year, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," which was sold out during a run that ended June 25.

"I've been living on Cape Cod since 1979. I went to see the theater as soon as I heard about it," Ms. Harris says. "I thought the first production I saw there was just wonderful. It was a thrilling young group. I'm now on the board.

"Jeff Zinn, co-artistic director, called me up last winter and asked if there was a play I'd like to do. I had wanted to do 'Beauty Queen' since I saw it ...," she says.

Under the direction of Mr. Zinn, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's drama delivered a taut, terrifying evening. Harris portrayed Mag Folan, the aged mother who keeps her daughter as a near-slave to her wishes.

Unlike Anna Manahan in the Broadway cast, who had a bullying presence on stage, Harris whispered, coughed, and wheedled her way through the role, creating a personality of selfishness grown to monster proportions. The details of her work - the way she pats her hands, the tiny sideways glances from her eyes as she measures the effects of her strategies - have been honed over decades in the theater (five Tony awards), films ("East of Eden," among many others), and TV ("Knots Landing").

Thanks to Harris, Zinn's thoughtful direction, and the skills of the other actors, the cast worked as a balanced ensemble, drawing the audience into the highly pitched emotional battles.

"Having Julie Harris is a windfall," Zinn says. "People asked me if I would jack up the prices ... for this show. I said, 'No.' I wanted it to [just] be part of our season."

In a rented shacklike theater that seats only 90, WHAT presents 100 performances each summer. The troupe has built a following in the town and surrounding communities. Its budget of $150,000 is 80 percent dependent on ticket sales, a high level of earned income for a performing troupe.

Zinn says he makes "a paltry living in the summer" as co-artistic director, along with playwright Gip Hoppe, who was one of the founders of the theater.

Mr. Hoppe's play, "Jackie: An American Life," produced in Boston and on Broadway several seasons back, has catapulted him beyond Wellfleet into a wider professional career, complete with an agent. His newest play, "Ruby Tuesday," is enjoying its first professional production at WHAT in a three-week run that opened July 5th. Set in the year 2025, "Ruby" revolves around a couple with a small child in an era dominated by technology.

WHAT was founded by a group of actors, including Mr. Hoppe, who originally wanted to produce a single show. "We were tired of the typical summer play," he says.

As for Harris, she'll go out on the road again this fall for a six-month tour of her signature piece, "The Belle of Amherst," a one-woman show about poet Emily Dickinson. But when she returns home, "I'd love to do another show at [Wellfleet]. It's such a good place to work," she says.

*The Wellfleet season continues with humorist Jimmy Tingle in a one-man show, July 26-Aug. 5; 'Fuddy Meers,' a recent off-Broadway success, Aug. 11-Sep. 3; and the British play 'Closer,' Sept. 13-Oct. 8.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society