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With all of her strength

Kathleen Chalfant is cool, sensual and strong. Good thing too -- she uses all of those traits for her role as a survivor of genocide in 'Red Dog Howls.'

May 11, 2008|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — 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."


Parents' part

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.

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