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STAGE : Examining the ‘Scar’ Tissue : With his film career on hold and his birthdays mounting, Ed Harris returns to the theater and a role that is making him review his life

<i> Robert Koehler is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Ed Harris is fiddling with a cigarette while hunched forward on a Southwest-style sofa center stage on a set at the Met Theatre. He is, by nature, quietly intense. But right now, as the compact, square-jawed Harris is mulling a thought over, the intensity is almost palpable.

“Turning 40, well. . . ,” he says, looking at his cigarette, his feet, then his guest. “You hate to fall into talking about a cliche like a ‘midlife crisis,’ but maybe that’s why cliches are cliches. You realize that you’ve lived half of your life, more or less. You might stop smoking, and stay healthy. And you can’t help but look at what’s going on in your life, what you care about, the things that you claim are important in your life but that you haven’t paid attention to.”

He pauses. “So I’ve been thinking about things in my life.”

The four-decade rite of passage is part of it--Harris reached 41 last November--but a big part of his soul-searching comes from Murray Mednick’s “Scar,” continuing a successful engagement at the Met and marking Harris’ return to an L.A. stage after a 10-year absence. His self-inquiry stems from the drama’s American Indian spiritual core, but Harris also suggests that returning to this work, in which he co-starred with actress-wife Amy Madigan at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 1985, has made him review his life.

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“The last time I did ‘Scar,’ ” he says, “I really got into it. I mean, I felt it was a gift to do it. It put me in touch with ideas that were relatively new to me. Some of it stayed with me, but a lot of it, I let go. Now, it’s like revisiting something and not wanting to leave it this time, using it to define what it is I’m concerned about.”

When he says this, Harris almost sounds like Matt, his vagabond character who is on an all-consuming spiritual quest, a man hungering for truth. Critics have remarked on this close identification: The Times’ Sylvie Drake wrote that Harris’ performance “is an actor’s total emotional surrender to a complex, disturbing role . . . at once self-derisive, insecure, majestic, aggressive and ailing, he compels an audience to mark him.”

Harris’ last play appearance was his 1986 Tony-nominated performance in George Furth’s “Precious Sons,” and he readily admits that he has missed the theater.

It’s not the easiest homecoming to explain, because from 1975 to 1982, Harris was the definitive working stage actor. Raised in Tenafly, N.J., and driven to play football, he discovered acting at Oklahoma State University and developed it further at CalArts. After school, his life became an almost non-stop whirl of theater activity in Los Angeles and San Francisco--culminating in an acclaimed performance of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” which transferred from the Magic to New York’s Circle Repertory Company.

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Then Harris was cast as John Glenn in Philip Kaufman’s movie “The Right Stuff,” and everything changed. In a poll, he was named, with Jack Nicholson, as one of “the sexiest balding men in America.” It’s the kind of jokey praise bequeathed only on stars, and Harris was among them. On the screen, his powerful magnetism made him a lock for hot roles in seemingly hot movies like “Swing Shift,” “Alamo Bay,” “Places in the Heart, “Sweet Dreams,” “Under Fire,” “The Abyss,” “Jacknife,” and the title role in “Walker.”

But something went wrong. Harris says it’s “fate, or maybe karma, or else, you think, ‘Wait a minute, this is too much of a coincidence.’ ” One after another, Harris’ movies almost always bombed, or, if they made money, as in “The Abyss,” it was well below expectations.

Even stranger, they were movies by otherwise successful filmmakers like James Cameron (“The Abyss”), Jonathan Demme (“Swing Shift”) and Louis Malle (“Alamo Bay”). The film work Harris remains proudest of is in the virtually unseen “A Flash of Green,” a PBS “American Playhouse” project directed by Victor Nunez that had a limited theatrical release. His most recent film, “Paris Trout,” bypassed theatrical release altogether and went from cable to video.

In a 1989 interview, Harris expressed rage that his film work was threatened with obscurity. Now, he claims to be past that, saying: “I’m less concerned with needing that hit than I was before.”

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Evidence of the mature, over-40 Ed Harris? Playwright Mednick, who has worked on and off with the actor for 14 years, thinks so. “Yes, he’s matured, he has more understanding,” Mednick says. “The first word I think of with Ed is dedication , and whatever that quality is, it’s deepened in him. In ‘Scar,’ the character and the actor come together in a very unusual way. The inner concept of the play--the Indian view of the warrior’s way--has great meaning for Ed.”

As when Shepard wrote “Fool for Love,” so Mednick, during the writing of “Scar,” began to think of Harris for the central role.

Matt, who left in the middle of his and pal Stevie’s band gig in New York 10 years hence, taking off on foot down the American road, has become a spiritual hermit who seldom talks. Stevie (played by Michael Woods) has become a chart-topping pop star with a swanky retreat in the high New Mexico mountains, and Matt has sought him out.

“He’s on a mission,” Harris explains, “and the mission is really what the play is about: The dilemma of giving away what’s precious to you. For Matt, and Murray, this is based on the Indian belief in ‘the giveaway,’ whether it be robes, skins, weapons or horses--whatever empowers you.”

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Harris’ artistic dilemma, paradoxically, has been rooted in much of the praise he’s received, typified by Frank Rich’s New York Times remarks about Harris in “Precious Sons”: “As he has demonstrated repeatedly in recent years, this actor is peerless when cast as a baffled Middle American working-stiff trying to liberate himself from the chains of stoic masculinity.”

Matt in “Scar,” as Harris sees it, is a way of liberating himself from the chains of such typecasting. Being a name on the Met Theatre’s board of directors, Harris realized, wasn’t enough, and observing the theater’s weekend workshops set him to thinking about “getting my feet back on the floor, in front of people--why I spent six years away from it may be just because too many films came along and not enough plays fired me up.”

“Matt is a fascinating guy, a lot different from the characters I’ve played on film. He’s out there , all over the place emotionally and physically, desperately trying to fulfill his mission and constantly getting sidetracked.” (And Harris is trying to go further “out there” with his latest film role in David Mamet’s upcoming adaptation of his play, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” though he isn’t sure--based on a viewing of the rough cut--if he pulled it off.)

“Scar” director Darrell Larson, who acted in Mednick’s years-in-the-making “Coyote Cycle” and has co-starred with Harris in Mednick’s “Are You Lookin’ ” and Shepard’s “Cowboy Mouth,” observes that Harris “makes me think through whatever ideas I have as a director. When I first met him, if you told him to jump off a cliff and see what happens, he’d do it. He’s one of the most courageous actors I’ve ever seen, but now he’s less flashy, more cautious.”

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That doesn’t mean, however, more conventional. So serious do Harris, Mednick and Larson take the spiritual themes in “Scar” that they jointly participated in an Indian sweat ritual as a way of initiating rehearsals.

“I realized a few weeks ago that ‘Scar’ is about how friendships that are really strong can survive anything,” notes Larson. “And though Murray and I have had our creative battles, and though I hadn’t seen Ed for several years when he was making back-to-back movies, we found during rehearsals that we still had strong bonds.”

“For me,” Harris says, quietly, “doing this play is its own giveaway, an offering, and it can be accepted or not. If I have a prayer, it’s that this is an offering that’s worthy.”


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