In a long and exemplary stage career, Kathleen Chalfant is giving one of her most shattering performances at the El Portal in North Hollywood. Audiences beware: It's a harrowing experience, not for the faint of heart. Few actresses would be as courageous -- never mind capable -- of traversing this particular moral abyss. But then her searing work in "Angels in America" and "Wit," along with decades of infusing combustible human truth into classics, couldn't have prepared her better for the challenge.
The play, Alexander Dinelaris' "Red Dog Howls," had its world premiere Monday in a production sharply directed by Michael Peretzian. The story concerns the legacy of the Armenian genocide on a troubled thirtysomething New York writer who's haunted by psychological ghosts he wants to banish before his first child is born. But to get to a place of light, he must tunnel into a pit of darkness that threatens to swallow his identity, his marriage and even his unborn baby.
Addressing us directly, Michael (Matthew Rauch) explains that after his father died, he found a stash of his letters. A note instructing him to burn them is heeded, but not before he jots down the address of the sender. This clue leads him to a 91-year-old woman, who turns out to be his grandmother -- and the one person who can tell him why his beloved father and grandfather lived under such a pall.
But answers to agonizing questions do not come easily, and Dinelaris has written the play as though it were a detective novel, with Michael leading the investigation, Oedipus-like, into his mysteriously besieged soul. One can't help thinking of the Greeks, even though this isn't a tragedy but a tale of redemptive survival. The catastrophe lurks in the past, not the future, but the events described rival the horror of the House of Atreus, Agamemnon's blood-soaked clan who similarly understood a traumatic history as a hereditary curse.
Michael, who has only the sketchiest sense of his background, doesn't want the misery confounding him to be passed down. He's afraid of losing his wife, Gabriella (Darcie Siciliano), and ominously reflects on the way the wives of his grandfather and father vanished from their lives. "It was, for lack of a more exact term, a plague on our family," he says.
Dinelaris' focus is on the developing relationship between Michael and his grandmother, Vartouhi, who slowly prepares him for the terrible knowledge he seeks. She feeds him bowl after bowl of rice pilaf soup with lemon, which he laps up as nourishment from the Armenian culture he knows precious little about. She tests his strength, practically vanquishing him at arm wrestling and somehow lifting him into bed one night after he falls asleep on her couch. To survive the Armenian massacres that began in 1915 and wound up decimating a world, Vartouhi has had to turn herself into steel. And the play affectingly shows why she cannot readily confide in her grandson. What happened to her defies speech. The two must inhabit the dim memory together, often in silence while she lovingly watches him eat.
The material is inherently devastating, which makes some of Dinelaris' punched-up dramatic strategies seem unnecessary. There's a bit too much "character" business going on with Vartouhi, Michael's intermittent narration grows ponderous and the ending is marred by a melodramatic twist that undermines the drama's credibility.
But for the most part, the production is beautifully executed. Tom Buderwitz's sets, particularly his old-world conjuring of Vartouhi's Upper Manhattan apartment, are superb. And the onstage musical accompaniment of composer Ara Dabandjian deepens the mood with its fusion of Mediterranean sounds.
Rauch is the drama's solid center, and he lets us feel the urgent struggle taking place inside Michael as though a clock were ticking and his very stability were on the line. Siciliano's Gabriella makes a formidable spouse -- she won't accept anything less than an equal partnership. Her edges may be severe, but she reveals an authentic tenderness as well, and it's too bad Dinelaris allows her to fade into the background.
The spine-stiffening cry emanating from "Red Dog Howls," however, comes courtesy of Chalfant, whose artistry, moral passion, intelligence and heartbroken humanity combine into an indelible act of witness-bearing. It's a miraculous performance, rallying the forces of art against atrocity and permitting us to see in the midst of meaninglessness an ember of hope and repair.
'Red Dog Howls'
Where: El Portal Theatre,
5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: June 13
Price: $42 to $65
Contact: (818) 508-4200
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes