Carole and Andrew Harris inside Deertrees Theatre in Harrison.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Andrew and Carole Harris had reason to celebrate.

This spring, for the first time since 2012, when an abnormality in a mole led to a diagnosis of melanoma, her participation in a national clinical trial and a desperate fight for her life, Carole Harris felt confident in her future. She passed the five-year benchmark in her cancer treatment with no recurrences, affording the couple the luxury of looking forward.

For Carole, that meant continuing to work on their 1873 dream home in Harrison, with its elegant architectural lines, sprawling country porch and dramatic roof gables. They purchased the house a decade ago, before Carole got sick, with an eye on retirement. For Andrew, it meant focusing on his dream job as artistic and executive director at Deertrees Theatre, a storied summer playhouse that’s less than a mile from their home. Harris, the theater department chair at the University of Southern Maine and a longtime Portland actor, is in his 10th season at Deertrees.

On May 6, just as they began looking forward, Andrew collapsed in his campus office in Gorham and spent nearly six weeks at Maine Medical Center in Portland and another week at Tufts Medical Center in Boston for tests and treatment of a rare blood cancer and related heart disease. He has been diagnosed with amyloidosis, a disease caused when the substance amyloid, an abnormal protein produced in bone marrow, builds up in internal organs. It is affecting his heart, restricting its ability to pump blood and leaving him short of breath. The damage to his heart is irreversible. He’s had a defibrillator installed and has begun chemotherapy treatment for the blood disease. If the treatment suppresses the progression of the disease, Harris could be a candidate for a heart transplant. That’s the best outcome.

Meanwhile, the show goes on. As Andrew Harris focuses on his medical treatment and care in Portland and Boston, the couple is relying on a network of theater and community friends to help manage the summer season at Deertrees, a majestic theater built with Harrison hemlock in 1936 and featuring hand-carved beams, light fixtures, trim and other personal touches of the workers who built it. It was designed as a high-end opera house in the woods of Maine’s lake country and in its day hosted some of the country’s finest singers.

PRESENT, AS POSSIBLE

Despite the health challenges of its director, Deertrees Theatre in Harrison will put on a full season of shows, thanks to support from the theater community and friends. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Prior to joining USM, the British-born actor appeared often at Portland Stage, where Carole also worked for many years as marketing director. Andrew Harris also acted at the Public Theatre in Lewiston and directed L/A Arts, and has been involved with arts administration in the United States and in his native England more than 40 years.

This summer at Deertrees, Harris, 65, had planned to act in the play “ART” and direct another. Acting is out, and he will direct if he can. “I am hoping I will be able to make a nightly appearance for the curtain speech. Hopefully, people will see me up there, but we’ll see,” he said.

The season, which began Saturday and runs through the end of August, caters to year-round and summer residents with a mix of music and theater. The Sebago/Long Lake Musical Festival has five performances, along with a Beatles tribute band, Irish folk music, a classic rock concert, folk singer Cheryl Wheeler and a performance by Maine songstress Emilia Dahlin. Harris has beefed up the theater offerings, bringing a half-dozen USM students to Harrison to act in the plays and work in the theater as part of their coursework.

Harris has been present for the season-opening preparations as much as possible. This spring has been particularly busy. Beyond the usual opening duties and the chores associated with nursing an old wooden building through a cold, snowy winter, Deertrees has added a suite of new bathrooms and upgraded the theater’s rigging. Deertrees will spend about $85,000 on the bathroom project and another $100,000 on the rigging in the second of a three-year commitment to upgrading the theater’s technical systems.

Fundraising for both projects continues, adding an additional layer of pressure and stress. A $50,000 grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation and a $20,000 grant from the Davis Family Foundation have been timely and appreciated, he said.

Board members, their spouses, friends and family members have helped prepare the theater for the season, and there’s a sense of mission behind their work, said board member David Percival. Last week, he was staining boards for the new bathrooms. About 50 people showed up for a volunteer reception in late June, twice as many as typically show up, said his wife, Darbee.

“We are all concerned about Andrew’s condition, and we all want to help. That probably attributes to the elevated numbers this year. We want this season to be successful. Everybody wants to pitch in and and help,” she said.

KINDRED SPIRITS OF STAGE

The married couple Sara Valentine and Michael Boudewyns will oversee much of what happens on the Deertrees stage this summer. Valentine is an assistant professor of theater at USM, and Boudewyns also teaches theater there. Together, they also run the family theater company Really Inventive Stuff, which tours nationally.

They helped out at Deertrees last year, “doing whatever was needed,” Boudewyns said, and they will take on the added duties of directing plays and staging the shows this summer. Boudewyns will take over Harris’s role in “ART,” Valentine will direct “ART” and they’ll remount a family play they presented last summer, “Shipwrecked.” They’ll also stage “Green Eggs and Ham” and “The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant” in the theater’s family series, and will work with USM students on the romantic comedy “Fortune,” which opens at Deertrees in August and moves to USM early in the fall semester.

“Our job this summer is to ensure people who are coming up to see the shows and even the artists who are coming to perform have a nice, welcoming experience. Andrew might be there or Andrew might not be there, but that won’t affect the fact that we will be prepared and the audience will enjoy their experience,” Boudewyns said. “We’re committed to the same things that Andrew is committed to, and I think we feel like kindred spirits as far as storytelling and theater being something useful and inspiring to people, and you don’t need to go to the big city to enjoy it.”

Mariah Larocque, a theater major at USM, said that running the theater with the limited involvement of Harris is a big undertaking, but one that she and her peers are prepared to handle because Harris has prepared them well. “We are trying to be Andrew’s eyes for him, and we are doing a great job. Every time he comes around, he seems happy,” said Larocque. “We are rallying behind him, and we are rallying for him.”

Thomas Wilson, a longtime friend, is bewildered by what the Harrises are facing as a couple, given what they’ve already been through with Carole’s cancer treatment. He attributed Andrew Harris’s determined attitude to “that stiff upper lip the Brits have. It’s tough enough when someone looks at you and says, ‘You have heart issues that are serious and life-threatening, and, oh, by the way, we also found cancer.’ For someone to have one of those diagnoses, it’s pretty intense. To have two at the same time is pretty overwhelming.”

Harris seems ready for whatever comes next, Wilson said. “He’s pushing through. He told me the other day, ‘Let’s get this over with so I can get back to what I love.’ ”

PUSHING THROUGH

Thoughts of her dream home in Harrison helped Carole Harris through cancer treatments. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When Carole Harris was sick, she used their dream home in Harrison as motivation for pushing through. There were many moments before she was accepted in a national clinical trial when things felt bleak, she said, but the idea of restoring an old house was her singular vision beyond her medical care. As a child, Carole Harris spent her summers in Harrison. Her family had an Airstream trailer, and Harrison was their destination. Carole learned to swim in Crystal Lake. It’s always been her dream to live in Harrison.

They bought the farmhouse on Tolman Road in December 2008 with retirement in mind, knowing it would take years to renovate and restore. While working on the house in the summer of 2012, Carole Harris discovered she was sick with cancer. A mole on her ankle ballooned. She assumed it was caused by a bug bite or from the demo work that she was doing in the house.

In a matter of days, she was seeing cancer specialists and preparing for surgery and beginning what would become a nightmare of several years. “There were some not-so-enjoyable parts of my treatment,” she said. “My dreams and hopes for transforming this house are what got me through. I never knew if I would live there, but that’s what I spent my time thinking about.”

By spring 2014, the melanoma that she had been managing for two years progressed from Stage 2 to Stage 4, and she began deteriorating rapidly. Doctors ruled out additional surgeries and told her, “There’s nothing else we can do for you.”

Desperate to live, she pushed for inclusion in a clinical trial of a new drug and was among 80 patients across the country selected to participate. Five years later, Harris feels enormous pride and relief whenever she sees an advertisement for Opdivo, the drug that she was prescribed as part of the trial. “In a way, I had almost the optimal results,” she said. “When they talk about success, they’re talking about me.”

That’s why it feels like a cruel twist that her husband now faces his own urgent medical crisis. They assumed the worst was behind them this spring, and the idyllic life they dreamed about was actually happening.

“Mine was a walk in the park, compared to what Andrew is facing,” Carole Harris said of her treatment.

With another daunting health crisis at hand, she is a jumble of emotions – joyful for life and fearful about what comes next. “I am proud to have been part of an opportunity to save my life plus open doors to living longer for many others and generations to come,” she said. “I just hope that I will not die of a broken heart as a result of Andrew’s cancer and heart-failure issues. Never take a single moment for granted.”

Carole and Andrew Harris have had more than their fair share of health challenges. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

filed under: