That rare bloom

a moral Afrikaner

In this world of instant and often dubious celebrity, it's a strange phenomenon to be exposed to actual star quality. This is when you see a well-known actor walk onto a stage and your first thought is not She certainly looks taller on television, but Oh yes, I can see what all the fuss is about.

Scent of the Roses

A Contemporary Theater until August 16

Julie Harris is best known as the gamin waif in A Member of the Wedding and the love interest in East of Eden opposite James Dean. Unlike so many other promising performers of her generation, she chose not to disappear into a vortex of increasingly bad film and TV (OK, there was a seven-year stint on Knot's Landing), but to concentrate on her stage work, for which she's received five Tony Awards. That's more than any other actor, ever.

But even those awards don't prepare you properly for the full-force effect of her performance in Lisette Lecat Ross' Scent of the Roses. How someone so apparently slight and fragile can hold a stage so completely is the mystery of great talent. She's the sort of actor who is spellbinding even when she's doing something as simple as bringing on a tea tray. But if she chooses, she can leave the stage and vanish without your noticing.

The central theme of Roses is the seemingly impossible task of making good the vast sins of one's society. In contemporary South Africa, Annalise, an elderly woman (played by Harris), finds herself beleaguered by her grown children into selling a painting that may prove to be extremely valuable. This is because it's by the black painter Julius Van George (Ntare Mwine), now deceased but justifiably famous, whom she knew in her youth. But there's more than sentiment behind her reason not to sell: There's a secret, one that's gradually revealed by the play as it weaves like a shuttle back and forth between past and present.

Some of the play's developments sacrifice plausibility for effect. A long monologue from Harris in the second act both slows the play's momentum and tells us more than we need to know about her long-hidden motivations. But it's an active messiness, the efforts of a writer who's trying to grapple with an immense and complex issue and is willing to make some mistakes in doing so.

Ross has created an engagingly contradictory character in Annalise, one that allows Harris a chance to present a portrait of courageous vulnerability, stubborn generosity, and guilty morality—in short, a specimen of that rarest and most intriguing of exotics: a moral Afrikaner. Underlying all this is an unsentimental rendering of the efforts and burdens that old age and memory inevitably impose. It's a jewel of a performance, and the play, the supporting cast, Edelstein's direction, and Thomas Lynch's sumptuous design provide a worthy setting.

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