Kathleen Chalfant has played big parts before, both in terms of substance and sheer word count: The leads in Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit
, in Frederick Wiseman's Holocaust-themed The Last Letter
and in the Marguerite Duras-penned two-hander Savannah Bay
had her onstage throughout, often without any break.
And while her Tony-nominated turn in Angels in America
didn't find her playing the largest parts in that two-part epic, her various Angels
roles still added up to a seven-hour commitment.
Big jobs, all of them. But Chalfant may have met her match, she says with a laugh on the eve of technical rehearsals for Howard Barker's A Hard Heart
, an Epic Theatre Ensemble production that begins previews on Oct. 30 and opens at the Clurman Theatre on Nov. 11.
"In a way, the scale of this character makes it maybe the biggest part I've ever done," Chalfant says of Riddler, a diabolical political fixer in a fictitious kingdom facing invasion, in Barker's pointedly timely political allegory. "She's crazy, a megalomaniac, and that's always fun to play. I guess she thinks that what she's doing is necessary and right, and she has the power, as some people do, to convince people to go along with her for far too long."
Barker, a British playwright seldom produced in the U.S., wrote A Hard Heart
in 1991, around the peak of Thatcher's prime ministership and the end of an era.
"It was in many ways a response from the Left to the fall of the Soviet Union," Chalfant says. "Barker, as were many of us, was feeling a bit displaced, and was trying to come to grips with a world that was shifting to the right and becoming increasingly unipolar."
Seen from that perspective, the geopolitical situation is arguably much worse now.
"I think we are living in a terrible, terrible time," Chalfant says. "America is in danger of forgetting who we are; we're in the hands of people who will lead us over a cliff. I don't know if they do it maliciously or if they really believe in their lunacy, but they are committed to it."
But Chalfant is quick to caution against a unilateral interpretation of Barker's play.
"It has those political resonances, but I've found working on the pay that it's reductive to limit it to those immediate confluences," Chalfant says. "There are a lot of other things going on that have to do with our own complicity in our fall. It's so easy to blame the others and say, 'They led us over the cliff!' But we saw the cliff coming."
Chalfant has been fortunate to work almost exclusively in projects of exceptionally high political and social value. It has been mostly due to good fortune, she insists humbly.
"I'm clearly attracted to material that would be called 'political,' " she says. "But I've been really lucky in the things I've been asked to do. It would be great if I could say, 'I've chosen my career, and it's all worked out as I planned.' It doesn't happen that way. Being in New York when Angels
were being written and cast--those were both matters of luck."
She did beg to be part of one play, she admits: The British import Guantanamo: "Honor Bound To Defend Freedom"
, the docudrama about the controversial U.S. detainment center and its role in the U.S. "war on terror," which ran to acclaim at the Culture Project in 2004. "For America, it was maybe a year or so ahead of its time," Chalfant opines. "That was extraordinarily powerful piece of political theatre, and I wanted to be a part of it."
Though the message of that play was explicit and urgent, Chalfant says she feels that theatre by its nature doesn't have push very hard to get its points across. By its nature, it stirs up deep feelings about our political and social circumstances.
"The theatre is particularly well suited to that, because it's a communal event, and it's all happening right in front of you," says Chalfant, who's also a mentor in TDF's Open Doors
education program. "I know from my experience being in Angels
--you could actually see how that play as an artistic object, an object of beauty, seduced people into thinking things they'd never thought before. Any effective work of art can do that, and when it works, some part of your soul is changed forever."
She takes a breath and jokes, "Let's see if we can pull that off!"
If anyone can, Chalfant can.
For tickets to
A Hard Heart, go here.