Kathleen Chalfant in The Last Letter(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Kathleen Chalfant in The Last Letter
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Vasily Grossman was a leading Russian war correspondent during World War II. His dispatches from the front, particularly his reporting on the Battle of Stalingrad, were highly regarded. Because he later fell from favor, his name has been removed from that coverage, nor does it appear below lines he wrote that are inscribed in the dome of what is now the Stalingrad battle war memorial. But, apparently, Grossman is still well recalled in his native country. A fiction writer championed early in his career by Maxim Gorki, Grossman wrote his masterwork, Life and Fate, to commemorate the war and to describe conditions among the Russians during the ordeal. However, he dared not submit his work for publication until after Joseph Stalin's death in 1953. Even then, the cultural powers that were denied him that right. So it was only in the 1980s that the 800-plus-page novel was published and impressed the literati with its panoramic depiction of the USSR's wartime rigors.

Since Grossman was born in the small Ukraine city Berdichev, he set much of the action in the novel there. That was also where his mother, a schoolteacher, remained until she was killed in a German massacre. And it's where a female doctor, a character in the novel obviously based on his mother, writes a last letter to her son the night before she is murdered. That poignant goodbye comprises the 18th chapter of Life and Fate, which was translated into English by Robert Chandler. Now that chapter has been adapted as The Last Letter by documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who clearly regards the excerpt as having the weight of a documentary even though it's actually Grossman imagining what his mother might have written him had she composed a letter before being marched by the German occupiers to a mass grave. That is to say, the letter is the most poignant sort of wishful thinking.

Wiseman, who has repeatedly fulfilled the promise of his surname throughout an impressive career, understands that the fictional situation is powerful enough not to call for anything beyond simply being set forth. And so he's called on Kathleen Chalfant, who only recently vivified one of Alan Bennett's talking heads and who specializes in unaffected, elegant characterizations, to impersonate the doomed doctor. As always, Chalfant succeeds in what is far from an easy assignment. Wearing a black dress with a yellow star on it (Miranda Hoffman is the designer), she commands an empty stage (set designer Douglas Stern is responsible for the gray walls that are the only features of the stark environment.) Pacing this space as the bereft optician, Chalfant talks of how life deteriorated in the town where once she was respected and where she now overhears neighbors saying what a relief it is to be rid of the Jews. As the doctor is about to leave for the old-town ghetto to which she's been sent, she listens to two women arguing about which will get her furniture and then is astonished when, as she walks off, both women begin to cry. "I felt as if I were in a foreign country -- alone and lost," she says.

Trying to explain to her absent boy what has transpired, the doctor describes the arrival of the Germans; what happened during the removal of Jews from their homes to their new but temporary homes; what books she carried with her (tomes by Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and Alphonse Daudet); how surprised she was that living in a ghetto turned out to be a relief for her since she no longer encountered disapproving stares; how pleased she is with the unexpected kindnesses tendered by a former patient; what it was like to see children, one of whom she was teaching French, have their future being ripped from them; and how she had to revise her view of herself ("I never used to think of myself as a Jew," she blurts). She mentions the barbarous behavior she has witnessed and how she realized what was really happening when 80 young men were taken away, supposedly to dig for potatoes. As she draws her long letter to a close, she asks, "What can I say to you in farewell -- eternal farewell?" It's heartbreaking moment, one of many in the piece.

Kathleen Chalfant in The Last Letter(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Kathleen Chalfant in The Last Letter
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Throughout, Chalfant maintains an elegiac tone. Only infrequently does she allow herself to laugh at some amusing moment she remembers; often, she looks around furtively, as if worried she's being watched. She gesticulates frequently (too frequently?) as if it's only by way of movement that the doctor can convince herself she's still alive. At one extraordinary moment, the character mentions the road down which she's certain her grave awaits: Chalfant raises her arm to point and holds it there in inconsolable accusation. (It was by the side of that very road where Grossman's mother was interred along with 30,000 others.) Perhaps needless to say, the doctor's story is familiar for it's the story of the six million but, of course, it's never become a tale that falls comfortably on the ear; likewise, it has to be a complex burden to enact, for which thanks to Chalfant and her continued determination to put herself at the artistic service of large issues.

Although the empty gray set and black costume are minimal by thoughtful design, Donald Holder's lighting is something else again. It may be the season's most inspired work for it's based on shadows -- an evocative metaphor if there ever was one. Holder has placed his lights so that, from moment to moment, Chalfant's shadow is cast against a wall. When different lights are beamed up or down at her, many shadows rise and fall. Sometimes, as when the doctor is confessing how much she misses her son, a lone shadow is thrown like a forlorn silhouette; sometimes when the doctor refers to crowds, as many as 20 shadows of varying sizes join her in solidarity. Occasionally, it seems as if the lighting design is threatening to upstage Chalfant in the way that the shadow(s) sometimes seem to upstage the doctor, but Holder never quite allows this to happen. Instead, he keeps this side of apt while etching his work on a viewer's mind as indelibly as the contributions of Chalfant and Wiseman.

The Last Letter is about people who faced the likelihood of disappearing forever into history's shadows. Vasily Grossman dedicated much of his life to making sure that this wouldn't happen; now Frederick Wiseman, Kathleen Chalfant, and colleagues have allied themselves to that important campaign.