In 'Lucifer's Child,' Julie Harris shows why she's First Lady of Stage

Theater

February 26, 1991|By Lou Cedrone

The one-woman show can be as entertaining as a full-blown production. Frequently, it is much more than expected. Two of the best examples of this theatrical form were Cloris Leachman's impersonation of Grandma Moses and Barbara Rush's ''A Woman of Independent Means.''

Add to these ''Lucifer's Child,'' currently playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The solo performer in this instance is Julie Harris, who is impersonating Isak Dinesen, the Danish woman who, in 1913, at the age of 28, moved to Mombasa, Africa, where she married her cousin, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke.

The marriage failed but not before the Baron left his wife with syphilis, the disease that would kill her many years later.

After the marriage ended, Dinesen remained in Africa, hoping to make a success of a coffee plantation she owned. She also had an on-and-off love affair with an English adventurer, Denys Finch Hatton, one that ended with his death in a plane crash.

In 1931, when the coffee farm failed, Dinesen returned to Denmark, which according to this show was a country she didn't like that much. She found some degree of happiness, however, as a writer. Her first book, ''Seven Gothic Tales,'' appeared in 1934. In 1937, she wrote ''Out of Africa,'' which was done as a 1985 film with Meryl Streep as Dinesen and Robert Redford as Hatton.

The play takes place in 1958 and 1959. In the first act, Harris, as Dinesen, is preparing for a speaking tour of the United States. In the second, she has returned from the tour, remembering, off all people, playwright Arthur Miller and his wife, Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe made a very positive impression on Dinesen, who thought the actress a fascinating innocent. The New York pigeons also made an impression on her. ''In New York,'' she said, ''they cough.''

Harris covers much the same territory that was covered in the Streep-Redford film, and it helps to have seen it. It isn't, however, absolutely necessary that you know the movie. All you really need know is that Dinesen loved her life in Africa, tolerated Hatton's behavior and had great regard for her servant, Farah. She also had nice things to say about the Baron, despite her condition, which managed to elude all the wonder drugs marketed to beat this disease.

Dinesen apparently had a rich sense of humor, and this, in Harris' hands, adds to the evening.

Harris has been acting for more than four decades. She never stops, and we never tire of her mannerisms, which are, at most, minimal. If there is anyone who deserves to be called The First Lady of the Stage, it is Harris, who has done just about everything, including seven years of ''Knots Landing,'' the television soap.

Her first home, however, is the stage, and in this instance she shimmers, shines and delights for two hours and 10 minutes.

''Lucifer's Child'' was written by William Luce, who wrote ''Belle of Amherst'' and ''Bronte'' for Harris. He also did ''Lillian,'' in which Zoe Caldwell was Lillian Hellman. The title of the new one-woman play is a reference to the subject's suggestion that she made a deal with the devil, one that gave her, in exchange for her soul, the talent to tell stories.

''Lucifer's Child,'' staged by Tony Abetemarco, has Harris using two full sets, and this, added to the star's performance, makes the evening seem as big as it need be.

''Lucifer's Child'' will remain at Kennedy Center through March 17. If you're looking for stage magic, this is it.

''Lucifer's Child'' *** Julie Harris as Danish writher Isak Dinesen

CAST: Julie Harris

DIRECTOR: Tony Abetemarco

RUNNING TIME: Two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission

TICKETS: (202) 467-4600

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