The actress Kathleen Chalfant, best known for her award-nominated and -winning performances in the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Wit, respectively, will receive this year’s Obie award for Lifetime Achievement, the Village Voice and the American Theatre Wing jointly announced today.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, Chalfant, 73, spent much of her childhood in the boardinghouse her parents ran together. “I knew I wanted to be an actress and wanted to be in cowboy movies so I could do two things: ride a horse and be kissed,” she told the Wall Street Journal in a 2004 interview. “Otherwise, I thought neither of those things would happen.” Chalfant majored in classics at Stanford University, but thereafter dismissed the call of graduate school in favor of pursuing her initial love of acting.
In the Seventies, Chalfant worked for some time as a production coordinator at Playwrights Horizons — an experience that marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship. In 1974, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Playwrights Horizons in Larry Ketron’s Cowboy Pictures. Over four decades later, Chalfant continues to feature at that theater: Just last year, she glowed on its stage in Sarah Ruhl’s whimsical For Peter Pan on Her 70th birthday. In his review, Voice theater critic Michael Feingold labeled Chalfant “as always, the most heroic” among the ensemble.
Prior to earning the Lifetime Achievement award, Chalfant won a Performance Obie for Wit, which ranks among her most defining turns. She played Dr. Vivian Bearing, an English professor dying of ovarian cancer; as she would recount to one New York Times interviewer, Chalfant gleaned significant inspiration for the role from the experience of watching her brother pass away from cancer. “I’m finding that playing the play now is a kind of memorial to Alan,” Chalfant said at the time. “It’s somewhere to put both my grief at his loss and what I learned about dying from him.”
Chalfant received a second Performance Obie in 2003, for Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, and was also specially cited for sustained excellence in performance in 1996.
In an interview with the Voice in August 2004, Chalfant mused on the nature of having a career in the arts. “Actors act, filmmakers make films, photographers photograph, and Bruce Springsteen (bless him) sings,” she said. “We’re all offering whatever gifts we have to the gods. No one knows whether it will have any effect. But it’s what we can do.” Then in the midst of the furor of an election year, Chalfant added words that resound powerfully today: “Everyone I know feels the absolute necessity to be politically engaged during this period.”
The 63rd Obies ceremony, to be hosted by John Leguizamo, will take place on Monday, May 21, at Terminal 5.