Actress Kathleen Chalfant, perhaps best known for her role as Vivian Bearing in Margaret Edson’s Wit (winning her numerous awards including an OBIE), began her career in New York in 1972. She has played an astonishing range of roles written by playwrights such as Jules Feiffer, Christopher Durang, Eve Ensler, Samuel Beckett, Alan Bennett and Tony Kushner (Angels in America earned her a Tony nomination). She is in town to portray Agnes in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, now in production at Arena Stage.
In an Arena Stage interview, Ms. Chalfant described the playwright: “I admire Albee’s writing deeply. There is never a false word. Albee’s language carries an actor rather than the other way around. His language is the roadmap which leads me, the actor, into the world of the play.” Here, we investigate the world of A Delicate Balance, and the life of this celebrated actress. Our interview with Edward Albee will appear shortly.
DCTS: Was there a single moment in your life which made you realize that you were an actor — that you were good at it and that you enjoyed it?
Chalfant: I’ve always enjoyed it since I was a little girl – I always doubt that I’m good at it and am always relieved when the play goes well and I’m reminded that if I’m not necessarily good at it at least I do have a profession which I love and understand.
DCTS: You have brought audiences so much understanding of humanity with characters such as Vivan Bearing (Wit), Ethel Rosenberg (Angels in America) and, last year you played at 91 year old Armenian Survivor Rose Afratian (Red Dog Howls) I see that as a child you grew up in your family’s large boarding house, and now that your husband is
a documentary filmmaker. Are those experiences well springs for your performances?
Chalfant: – Yes, I think growing up in a huge place with more than 50 people in it at all times is a great help in finding all these strange people I’ve been lucky enough to inhabit. I learned everything I know in that boarding house from chess to French.
DCTS: Let’s turn to your appearance in Arena Stage’s Delicate Balance. You play Agnes. Can you describe her for us?
Chalfant: I can’t really describe her since I’ve never seen her – it is very hard to describe someone from the inside you know. Because I am a wife and mother there are many ways in which she seems familiar to me for better or for worse and the desire to organize and control that many of us feel is very well developed in Agnes – she loves her husband and her child and her sister too, I think. She would like to live alone with her husband she thinks but this odd triangular household is what she knows and maintains.
DCTS: Tell us about Agnes’ husband Tobias, and about the actor who plays him.
Chalfant: I think Terry [Beaver] is an astonishing actor and brings a great masculine humanity to Tobias. He is a large creature both physically and spiritually and watching his tragic dissolution is almost unbearable sometimes.
DCTS: When Edward Albee visited rehearsals, what specific questions did you have for him, and what suggestions did he offer?
Chalfant: We all asked specific practical questions about things like when Teddy died and whether both Tobias and Agnes were wealthy and how long Claire had lived with them – things like that.
DCTS: Pam MacKinnon has often directed Albee. Can you describe her approach to the play?
Chalfant: I can’t because it was so organic to the process that I can’t imagine any other wa. She is a great collaborator, always in search of the humanity of the characters and the writing and a kind of stealth director so that when the play gets on, you discover that it has in fact been directed and very well, too.
DCTS: Thinking about Agnes for a moment: Agnes opens the play with a meditation on the possibility of going mad. Yet she seems very much in control of herself, and even of her household. What do you think prompts that initial speech on madness?
Chalfant: Well think of all the control needed to maintain that control and the fact that we all teeter on the edge of madness and the more energy required to make things work the greater the stakes and danger in losing control and after all it isn’t an easy life that Agnes leads – she must make a number of opposing things work all at the same time.
DCTS: Why do you suppose Agnes tolerates Claire’s presence in her house?
Chalfant: I think she has no choice – it is Tobias’s house and he doesn’t ask Claire to leave and then of course Claire is her sister and she has an obligation to her. It seems clear that Claire can’t survive without the support of others and as Agnes says “blood binds us” when all else fails, no matter what sadnesses and betrayals there may be.
DCTS: Agnes speaks several times about a “disease” in the household. What does she mean?
Chalfant: The disease is the terror that Harry and Edna bring with them and that terror is the terror inherent in the human condition.
DCTS: If Agnes were to give her daughter unsolicited advice on how to hold a marriage together, what would it be?
Chalfant: I don’t have any idea other than just stick it out. I think that Agnes would agree that without love it is very very difficult to stick it out.
DCTS: In what way does Agnes love Tobias. Or does she?
Chalfant: Yes Agnes loves Tobias very very much – she has dedicated her life to making a home for him and to living with his decisions.
DCTS: Agnes asks whether Tobias has ever been unfaithful to her. Does she really want to know?
Chalfant: I think she and everyone in the play knows that Tobias and Claire slept together once that first summer after Teddy died . I think she wouldn’t want to hear Tobias say it and she certainly doesn’t want to know if it has happened again – the balance wouldn’t survive such honesty.
DCTS: What is your favorite moment in the play?
Chalfant:- oh my, I don’t think I can answer that – there are many things I love to say and I do love the last monologue.
DCTS: You’ve won multiple awards for your work. Washington’s Helen Hayes Awards will be coming up in April. Do you have any advice for actors about how they should look at awards and the awards process?
Chalfant: I think the best plan is to ignore the existence of the awards process and if an award should fall from the sky into your hands to thank everyone graciously for the great good luck involved and to realize that this work is a collaborative enterprise and not a contest – but it is of course nice when people think you’ve done a good job.
DCTS: Where is your favorite place on earth?
Chalfant: Italy. When my husband [documentary filmmaker Henry Chalfant] and I were first married, we lived in Rome for a couple of years and it is my favorite city on earth (New York runs a close second) and during that time I studied acting in Italian and so came to love the language and the culture in all its multiplicity. For the past 10 years we have rented a house near Siena for a month every summer. I think we all find places in the world that feel like home and for me it is Italy even though my family is not Italian. I love the colors of it and the sound of Italian and the rhythm of life and the food and the shape of the land