KATHLEEN Chalfant is recalling the first time she rented the British actress Miriam Margolyes' house in Tuscany, now an annual summer ritual for the Chalfant family. "Let's see, it was 10 years ago, just after my brother's death," she says, digging into a plate of crab salad. "It will be 10 years. . . ." She pauses. "Oh, my God, that's today."
Just the barest flicker of emotion crosses over the 63-year-old actress' luminous blue eyes, even though Chalfant was close to her brother, Alan Palmer, a San Francisco restaurateur and political fundraiser. Her moving astringency is typical of the emotional discipline she has brought to myriad great performances, including her turns -- rabbi, Mormon mother, Ethel Rosenberg -- in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" (for which she received a Tony nomination); her Vivian Bearing, the acerbic John Donne scholar dying of cancer in Margaret Edson's "Wit"; and, more recently, her imperious matriarch in Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone."
Now Chalfant is applying that extraordinary rigor in a new play, "Red Dog Howls," in the role of Rose Afratian, a fierce and haunted 91-year-old survivor of the massacres of Armenians that began in 1915. Red Dog HowlsThe memory play by Alexander Dinelaris examines the legacy of violence and its effect on Rose's young grandson, Michael. On the cusp of beginning his own family and while going through his dead father's personal effects, Michael discovers letters that lead to a grandmother he's never known, uncovering terrible wounds for both. The play opens Wednesday at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.
"Kathleen is one of the few great actresses of the stage who can handle stern comedy and enormous gravitas," Dinelaris says. "The character may be 91, but the audience has to believe she could live another 30 years. Kathleen conveys the age as well the strength of a much younger woman."
Indeed, in the rehearsal that preceded lunch, under the watch of director Michael Peretzian, Chalfant sparred with Matthew Rauch, playing Michael, in a scene that alternated between Rose's dry humor and the tension of two strangers assessing the dangers and opportunities of a first encounter. Yet for all of Chalfant's cerebral cool, what one notices is an earthly sensuality -- traces of the independent child of the '60s she once was.
"It is a surprise," acknowledges Dinelaris. "But it's there in the way she moves, in the kind of visceral attachment she has toward food and in the softness she has toward family."
All of which fits well into Rose, who in the course of the play not only lets her grandson in on searing family secrets but also challenges him to arm-wrestling (which she wins) and continually badgers him to eat. The latter is of a piece with the Armenian matriarch whom Chalfant played off-Broadway in Leslie Ayvazian's "Nine Armenians." But that domestic play shares little with the strong echoes of Greek tragedy in "Red Dog Howls" -- something that attracted Chalfant, who majored in the classics at Stanford.
"The central issue for a lot of my work is that violence is irredeemable, that it does great harm to both the perpetrator and the victim," she says. For the ancient Greeks, that violence was most often the result of a curse placed on a family because of some horrendous misdeed. And although Chalfant says she admires "the practicality, realism and irony" of the Greek philosophical worldview -- "This is just the way of the world" -- she is much more a child of the enlightenment.
"I believe in the redemptive power of reason," says Chalfant. "I don't believe in curses. Whatever curses there are, it is in the psychological burdens which a parent may place on one's children. These things can be redeemed or stopped; I don't think it's necessary for children to suffer from the same lunacy as their parents."
Chalfant's parents -- William Bishop and Norah Ford -- deeded to their daughter a bifurcated vision of the world.
"My father was fierce, dark and misanthropic," recalls Chalfant of the man who had been in the military and then later ran boarding houses with his wife. "My mother was the bridge to the outer world -- beautiful, charming, funny, highly tolerant and very strong. It never occurred to me that men and women weren't equal. But both my mother and her mother, Nelly, who was married five times, tempered that strength by being very sexy."
Chalfant says that she learned everything she knows about acting by carefully observing the colorful polyglot inhabiting her parents' businesses, first a motel in Sacramento and then a 50-room boarding house in East Oakland. She grew up there with her parents, paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, who often took her to the movies. She was weaned on 1950s melodramas, like Rita Hayworth in "Miss Sadie Thompson." But Chalfant says she was drawn to westerns. If there was any childhood impulse to become an actress, it came from fantasizing about one thing: to be kissed by a cowboy.
Much to her surprise, at 17, she had her first kiss in the music room of the boarding house -- from John Miller, "a Keith Carradine look-alike and intellectual" who eschewed acting as superficial and encouraged Chalfant to study ancient Greek language and culture. Three years later, she broke Miller's heart after she met Henry Chalfant, a painter, and ran off to Mexico with him. They married in 1966 and went to live in Europe, first in Barcelona, where their son David, now a musician and record producer, was born. They then moved to Rome, where Kathleen studied acting. "I remember when we were driving back from Mexico, I told Henry, 'I don't want to be stuck teaching Greek to prep school students.' He said, 'What do you want to do?' Out of the blue, I said, 'I want to be an actress.' "
Her start in acting
THE COUPLE returned from Rome to the U.S. in 1971, settling in Woodstock, N.Y., where Henry ultimately became a photographer and documentary filmmaker. After giving birth to a daughter, Andromache (now a set designer), Chalfant and her husband moved to New York City, where she began a career off-off-Broadway that would be distinguished for its sheer breadth and versatility. The actress appeared in plays by the likes of Jules Feiffer, Christopher Durang, Maria Irene Fornes and Samuel Beckett before making her Broadway debut in 1975 in Greg Antonacci's "Dance With Me." "I just wanted work, and I wanted challenges," she said. "Yes, a lot of my work has been political, but it's been mostly due to good luck."
That would include getting cast early on in the development of Kushner's "Angels in America" and landing the role of Bearing in "Wit" (seen at the Geffen Playhouse in 2000). In the years between the projects, however, Chalfant was beset with a "paralyzing" fear of acting. "I'm not sure what caused it, but I was lucky to have a very good therapist who gave me some good advice: Don't think about it. And, miraculously, it worked."
She admits, with a sheepish smile, that it might well have been physiological. "I think since then I've been a much braver actress," she says. "Only in the last couple of years, since 'Wit,' has it really dawned on me that I have some skills. Now it's fun!"
It's ironic that "Wit," a brutally poetic play about a woman confronting death only with the salve of her beloved John Donne, should be Chalfant's life raft. "Who could have known that play about a naked, bald woman in her 50s would have had such an impact?" she says. While she was reaching what is arguably the pinnacle of her career with "Wit," her brother Alan, who had since moved in with the Chalfant family, was dying of cancer.
Asked if playing in "Wit," with its unsentimental yet clarifying view of death, was a comfort at the time, Chalfant says, "What I came to understand was death as a particular stage of life, a mysterious progression in the life of all beings, not a very long one. I don't know what came before, and I don't know what will come after. Frankly, I'm more concerned with the here and now and making this life a little better than how I found it."
After spending time plumbing the tragedy of the Armenian genocide in "Red Dog Howls," Chalfant is looking forward to Tuscany.
"There is a beautiful loggia looking over an olive grove where we take a lot of our meals," she says, brimming with anticipation. "Alan's ashes are buried there; we always remember to splash his grave with a good Brunello."
'Red Dog Howls'
Where: El Portal Theatre,
5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
When: Opens Wednesday. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: June 13
Price: $42 to $65
Contact: (818) 508-4200