I firrst remember seeing a young Joe Chaikin at the Living Theatre, on 14th Street and Sixth Avenue, when he appeared in Brecht's Man Is Man, playing the lead role of Galy Gay with such an intense combination of ferocity and vulnerability that he stole the show, with Julian Beck proclaiming, "A stara princeis born!" Then Joe took over the role of Leach in Jack Gelber's The Connection. Following Warren Finnerty's þamboyant bravura performance, Joe managed to bring his own unique approach, understated and soulful, to the character, a lost, desperate heroin addict. I must have seen these and other Living Theatre productions 10 or 20 times. This was a crazy, unforgettable, happening world, and Joe was at its center.
Joe came to Atlanta to direct my adaptation of Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance. One day in the car, driving him to rehearsal, I asked Joe if he'd ever driven. "Yes. When younger," he said. Why had he stopped? "I was distracted by the scenery." He added that he'd had three separate accidents, each time driving his car off the road into a ditch because he was transfixed by the sunlight filtering through the trees, by the rows of dandelions swaying in the breeze, by the sheer beauty of the landscape he was driving through. Finally his three sisters had persuaded him not to drive anymore.
In my previous experience with directors, they had usually wanted to maintain very clear boundaries of where your authority ended and theirs began. With Joe there was none of that, something that was probably largely unchanged from his pre-aphasia days. He was a democratic, supremely non-authoritarian spirit, who loved the companionship of making theater and had no use for petty power plays. The big difference now, after the stroke, was that Joe's conversation was limited. I gathered from friends that Joe had loved nothing more than to mull over moments from that day's rehearsal, to examine them from every angle. Now that was pared back to a few well-chosen words, but he was still fun to bat things around with.
Joe was one of the most sensitive artists ever to grace the American theater. His specialty was in creating indelibly poetic moments onstage, full of feeling and nuance, and then stringing these together to create a strong emotional impression, a very personal and irreducible collage. An old friend and associate of Joe's once told me, "Joe is all about capturing the floating moment."