The three faces of Valerie Harper

With 'Rhoda' in her past, Valerie Harper enjoys her latest acting role


October 20, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | By J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

There are three women of a certain age in Valerie Harper's life -- three women with whom she is intimately acquainted.

The first is Rhoda Morgenstern, the TV character Harper played for more than eight years in the 1970s -- first on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then on her own spinoff, Rhoda -- and with whom she'll forever be associated.

The second is Marjorie Taub, the title character of Charles Busch's play, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Harper starred in the hit comedy on Broadway and has now taken it on the road (it opens a one-week run at the Mechanic Theatre on Tuesday).

The third is Harper herself.

All three have passed the middle-age mark, a mark that sends many women flying for cover -- or possibly plastic surgery. But 62-year-old Harper is so comfortable with the aging process that last year she published a humorous, inspirational book about just that called Today I Am a Ma'am (HarperCollins).

Reached in St. Paul on a recent afternoon, the talkative actress chatted at length about the three women and their attitudes toward growing older.

TV viewers got a glimpse of Rhoda in middle-age two years ago in an ABC made-for-TV reunion movie called Mary and Rhoda. Harper's character was found living in New York, the twice-divorced mother of a daughter studying pre-med at Columbia University. "Rhoda didn't marry [a Jewish doctor], but she raised one," says Harper.

"She has some financial stability, but she also is working. She's probably got a job. I don't know exactly what, maybe in an art gallery or maybe she opened a coffeehouse or something where she's interacting with people. And she's happy. I don't know that she's getting married again," the actress speculated.

On the other hand, Marjorie Taub, the allergist's wife, has a good marriage, but she's far from happy. At the start of Busch's play, she can't even rise from the couch or get dressed. A West Side New York culture vulture whose children are grown, she is deep in a midlife depression.

"It's living in shoulda, woulda, coulda -- it's an anathema. It's the death to living your life," Harper says of Marjorie's attitude.

"She's saying: 'What did I do with my life? Why isn't anything working? The museums and the music and the literature and my cultural activities used to do it. They're not working.' She feels she's not intelligent, she's a fraud. She has time; she also is a very wealthy woman, but she feels her life is empty because she is not looking inside, and she's not seizing the moment and enjoying."

Marjorie's overblown angst makes her a wonderful character to portray, according to Harper. "She's a very volatile character, and she's very self-dramatizing. She's making a mountain from a molehill. She doesn't see it, but the audience sees it."

The result, the actress says, is a show "so screamingly funny that it's nurturing to be out there."

'Look life in the face'

Not that Harper seems to be in need of much nurturing. To the contrary, she's written a book aimed at giving real-life golden girls "a laugh, a bit of encouragement, a brighter view of themselves," as she puts it in the first chapter.

"In the book, one of the major points is that, at the turn of the century, women died at 55; that was life expectancy. So if the onset of menopause was 52, you literally had not only a foot but [were] perhaps up to the thigh in the grave. You were on your way out. Now when women are living to be 80 and 90 and beyond, the question is what are you going to do with the next 40 years?" she says.

"It's really important that we don't hang up the membership to the human community at menopause," she adds, summing up what she describes as her "seize-the-day" philosophy.

"I'm talking about enjoying and finding pleasure and interest and happiness and curiosity every moment. ... You have to look life in the face, doing what you can where you can."

For Harper "doing what you can" has involved social and political activism. Working to combat world hunger is an abiding concern of this actress, whose best-known character, Rhoda, fought a constant battle with food, and who herself admits, "I diet; if I ate what I wanted to, I would be the size of [late singer] Kate Smith."

The Hunger Project and Save the Children are two of the many causes to which she has lent support over the years. "Women eat least and last and do most of the work," she says, launching into a discussion of the plight of women in the Third World.

Lately, Harper and her husband, Tony Cacciotti, have been developing and promoting an educational game called TIVY, which can be used in the schools to improve math and possibly science skills. She has also been active on the labor front. A board member of the Screen Actors Guild, she recently lost the election for guild president to actress Melissa Gilbert. Described in the press as "bitter" and "contentious," the race included a rerun due to ballot irregularities the first time around.

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