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Painting Churches - Off-Broadway

Kathleen Chalfant and Richard Easton star in Tina Howe's comedy.

Painting Churches Star Kathleen Chalfant on Wit, Angels in America and a Naughty Role in Kinsey

Painting Churches Star Kathleen Chalfant on Wit, Angels in America and a Naughty Role in Kinsey
Kathleen Chalfant
Stage great Kathleen Chalfant reflects on her still-thriving career.

In our youth-obsessed culture, the stage career of Kathleen Chalfant offers an important lesson: Great talent attracts great roles, at every age. Chalfant was almost 50 when she had her official Broadway debut in Angels in America, receiving a 1993 Tony nomination for Millennium Approaches as Ethel Rosenberg, Hannah Pitt, Rabbi Chemelwitz and other roles. At 53, she triumphed in the original off-Broadway production of Wit as flinty cancer patient Vivian Bearing. Now Chalfant is showing off her flamboyant side as Fanny Church, the matriarch in Keen Company’s off-Broadway revival of Tina Howe’s Painting Churches. The actress recently chatted with about six special roles (out of dozens of possibilities) and pondered why friends suggest her when a part requires nudity.

Role That Touched the Most People
“The experience of interacting with the audience in Wit [1999] was like no other play I’ve ever been in. When you play Vivian Bearing, you are doing a public service because this is a play where people come to heal—it’s a safe play for people who are ill, for caregivers and for people who have lost loved ones. People stop you on the street just to talk about their experience, so I would say it’s the role that has had the most public impact. It was very moving for me to see Cynthia Nixon do it [in the current Broadway revival]. I’ve known Cynthia since she was a teenager and watched her grow up in the theater, so I wanted to support her. We talked afterward, and she is having the same experience I did.”

Role With the Best Costumes
“Fanny Church [in Painting Churches] is a woman with an eccentric sense of style, who shops in elegant thrift stores around Boston. Fanny wears hats all the time, and I don’t—I have very short hair, and not a lot of it, but I have loved, loved wearing hats in this show, a different one in each of five scenes. [Costume designer] Jen Paar did such a wonderful job finding vintage hats and dresses, some of them from the Costume Collection, which is the salvation of small theaters that need to do elaborate costuming on a shoestring. My most spectacular costume is a black satin and velvet dress that makes Fanny look, as she says, ‘like that fascinating woman in the Sargent painting.’ They built that dress for me, and I wear it with a Mr. John hat. This production has been heaven, particularly [co-starring] with John Cunningham [as Fanny’s husband]. He’s so gorgeous and such a guy. It’s like falling into a honeypot!”

Roles That Were the Biggest Stretch
“Let’s call Angels in America [1993] my six favorite characters in three hours. I played all kinds of people—men and women and old people and gods. I was with it for six years, from the first reading in New York in 1988, and we knew it was going to be special from that very first day. It was a great honor to play Ethel Rosenberg. I was born in 1945 and my parents were politically active, so I knew about the horrors of McCarthyism. Hannah [Pitt, Joe’s Mormon mother] ended up being the best part in the play, I think. I don’t know where the rabbi came from in my Easter-and-Christmas Episcopalian background but to this day, everybody wants me to do the rabbi. Though I loved all of my characters, I have a special fondness for Alexii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, who opened Perestroika. He was angry and blind and prescient, and I loved him.”

Role I Wish More People Had Seen
“I wish more people had seen Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom at the Culture Project [2004]. I played an attorney, and the play itself was a devastating indictment of our detention policies in Guantanamo. At one performance, Archbishop Desmond Tutu [of South Africa] played a part that would sometimes be done by guests. It was an astounding evening. During the question-and-answer session, he said, ‘I remember what happened in my country; please don’t let that happen here.’ I feel that artists have a public responsibility, and I’ve been lucky to appear in a number of plays that I believed in very deeply.”

Role That Was the Most Fun
“I’ve played so many wonderful women in my career. My favorite Western heroine was Calamity Jane in my friend Sybille Pearson’s play True History and Real Adventures, off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre [1999]. I played Calamity Jane as a poor, clapped out drunk at the end of her life in Deadwood, and it was just great. I’ve played women from all over the place—the West, Texas, the Southeastern mountains; I’ve had such a good time.”

Role That Showed My Sexy Side
“I often appear naked on the stage, but I have to say that my favorite and more frightening moments of being naked were in the movie Kinsey [2004, no photo of Chalfant available]. I played Dr. Kinsey’s secretary and one of his first subjects to be filmed, the lady with the ‘shotgun orgasm.’ Apparently my scene almost resulted in the movie getting a triple X rating—that’s what I was told by Bill Condon, the glorious director. The other thing that’s funny about Kinsey is that when Bill was asking around for people who might play my part, not one, not two, but three friends of mine said, ‘Oh, Kathy will do that!’ I don’t quite know what that means. I hadn’t slept with any of those people!”

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