Volume 73, Number 31 | December 3 - 9, 2003


Chalfant in moving portrayal at the Lortel
Actress of ‘Wit’ and ‘Angels in America’ as Jewish mother in WWII Ukraine bidding farewell to her son


Kathleen Chalfant and director Frederick Wiseman

A mother writes to her son. She is a doctor in a small city in the Ukraine. Her son is far away and safe, but by 6 p.m. on the next day, July 15, 1941, she, Anna Semyonovna, must be “resettled” — bringing along no more than 15 kilograms of her belongings — behind a barbed-wire-enclosed district in the Old Town. “Anyone remaining will be shot,” say the diktats posted everywhere by the Germans.

“And so, Vityenka,” she writes, in what she knows will be the last letter he’ll ever receive from her, “I got ready. I took a pillow, some bedclothes, the cup you once gave me, a spoon, a knife, and two forks. Do we really need so very much? I took a few medical instruments. I took your letters, the photographs of my late mother and Uncle David, and one of you with your father, a volume of Pushkin, (Daudet’s) ‘Lettres de mon moulin,’ the volume of Maupassant with ‘Une vie’ . . . and that was that.”

On the morning a week earlier that the Germans had arrived with their tanks, she was, she says, “reminded of what I’d forgotten during the years of the Soviet regime: that I was a Jew . . . As a child, my circle of friends were all Russian; my favorite poets were Pushkin and Nekrassov; the one play which reduced me to tears . . . was Stanislavsky’s production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ . . . “

If you have tears, dear audience, prepare to shed them now.

The play at hand is “The Last Letter,” adapted by its director from Chapter 17 of the late Vasily Grossman’s novel “Life and Fate.”

The translation is by Robert Chandler.

The theater is the Lucille Lortel, on Christopher Street, where on December 11 “The Last Letter” opens the 25th season of the classics-dedicated producing company Theater for a New Audience.

The director is Frederick Wiseman, known around the world for three dozen penetrating bare-bones documentary films starting with “Titicut Follies” — an unsparing look into a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane — in 1967. A much more recent film of his is the 2002 “La derniere lettre,” shot in France from a screenplay by Veronique Aubouy, with Catherine Samie of the Comedie Francaise as the mother who writes that letter.

The actress at the Lortel is Kathleen Chalfant, she of “Wit,” “Talking Heads,” “Nine Armenians,” “Angels in America,” and many another brilliancy of performance.

It was when she was doing “Wit,” a life-giving play by Margaret Edson about a woman facing death by cancer, that Jeffrey Horowitz, the artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, asked Ms. Chalfant if she’d be interested in reading “The Last Letter” toward a possible future production.

“As soon as I heard the name Frederick Wiseman,” she says as she’s putting out food for the dog in her and her husband’s brick-walled West Village walkup, “I wanted to do it. Since then we’ve been trying for two years to find an available theater. So now we’re doing a cheerful Holocaust play for Christmas. Which is a little odd, but okay.”

The Anna Semyonovna whom Ms. Chalfant portrays is but one figure in the massive work of fiction that is Vassily Grossman’s great novel — great according to those discerning enough to have read it, in Russian (as an underground samizdat), in French, or in English. Kathleen Chalfant stopped after Chapter 17 — “I was beginning to get more information than I needed” — but she calls it “Tolstoyan” in force and scope.

“After that chapter she’s dead and she’s out of it,” says the actress. “In the novel her son’s a physicist, whereas Grossman was a writer and journalist and his mother was a teacher of French. I believe — I’m not really sure, but I believe — that Vasily Grossman was the first Allied journalist into the (liberated) camps in 1944. Like the mother in the novel, before the war he hadn’t even known he was a Jew. His mother died in the Ukraine in a way not unlike this.

“The novel, which begins with the siege of Leningrad, is fiercely anti-Communist and, of course, fiercely anti-Fascist. Grossman came to understand, as Hannah Arendt understood, that fascism and (Communist) totalitarianism are two sides of the same coin, no matter what you call them. Just as in our own time,” this Greenwich Village bred-in-the-bone anti-war actress, wife, and mother adds, “there is nothing to choose between Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, and Muslim fundamentalism.”

Dropping in chez Chalfant at just that moment is Frederick Wiseman himself. Mr. Wiseman, how did this project — the movie, and now the play — first come into your head?

“Let’s see,” Wiseman says. “I was walking around Montparnasse one night—”

“You always say that!” Ms. Chalfant exclaims.

“Well, it’s true, and I passed a tiny little theater called Poche de Montparnasse, with a billboard out front that announced a reading from Grossman’s ‘Life and Fate.’ The subject matter interested me. I went inside. There were two actors, a husband and wife seated at opposite ends of a table. While I didn’t much like the performances, the text fascinated me,” says the man who, as it happens, had never in all his work made a film touching on the Holocaust.

“So I read the novel, in English — this was in 1995 — and then discovered that it had originally been brought out in France by Vladimir Dimitrijevic, a publisher of dissident Russian literature under the imprint l’Age d’Homme. In Vienna, someone had handed him a microfilm of Grossman’s novel.

“When Grossman had finished his novel, back in 1960, he was informed by Mikhail Suslov, the Politburo guy in charge of culture, that it might be published in two hundred years. Then the KGB raided Grossman’s apartment and seized the manuscript. That was that. Grossman died in 1964. It was (dissident nuclear physicist Andrei) Sakharov who arranged for a copy of ‘Life and Fate’ to get out of the country. Whoever took it out handed it to Dimitrijevic in Vienna.”

And when Wiseman, in Paris, asked Dimitrijevic for the U.S. movie rights, the publisher said sure, go ahead. Wiseman did a 1985 or ‘86 onstage workshop of it at Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, Mass., and ten years later happened to be making a documentary about the Comedie Francaise.

“The director of the Comedie Francaise then asked me if I wanted to direct ‘The Last Letter’ as a play there. It took me about a quarter of a second to say yes. It was done in Paris in 2000, and out of that came the movie — which Jeffrey Horowitz of Theater for a New Audience saw at the Film Forum in 2002.”

And here we are.

Kathleen Chalfant has often held the stage alone, and I do mean held. I think she will hold you in this one.


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