NEW YORK — Some memories are difficult to recall, yet impossible to forget.
The primal howl that arises near the end of the disturbing drama, "Red Dog Howls," caps a magnificent, wrenching performance by Katherine Chalfant as she concludes a horrific revelation from her character's mysterious past.
Playwright Alexander Dinelaris' searing drama ties Chalfant's character, Rose Afratian, to a devastating time in Turkish-Armenian history. The off-Broadway premiere from the author of "Still Life" opened Monday night in a well-acted, absorbing production at New York Theatre Workshop.
Ken Rus Schmoll smoothly directs the cast of three, and keeps the mood from becoming too melodramatic despite the haunting events that will be revealed. The narrator Michael (played by Alfredo Narciso) guides us through the enactment of his 1986 discovery, as a young, American-born father-to-be, that 91-year-old Rose is a relative he thought was dead.
Unaware that he had any Armenian blood, Michael sets out to learn the reasons for the curse that plagued both his father and grandfather, and discovers some major family secrets along the way.
His pregnant wife Gabriela is portrayed with spunk by a vibrant but under-utilized Florencia Lozano, who demands an equal relationship with her husband, although she didn't get one with the playwright. Dinelaris leaves her either offstage or sleeping onstage for much of the play.
Narciso is quite engaging, especially when Michael quizzically tries to converse with his reticent grandmother in their regular meetings over the next few months. Narciso maintains a generally measured tone when narrating, except for portentous opening and closing speeches about "sins from which we can never be absolved."
Michael's preoccupation with visiting Rose and studying Armenian history and culture at the library strains his marriage, but the main event is the mystery surrounding Rose. Blunt and demanding in her speech, Rose has a stern sense of humor that grows on you. Although she wears a heavy air of perpetual sorrow, Chalfant also adds glimpses of warmth and a wry delivery that render Rose more appealing. When Michael tells her he hasn't prayed in years, she retorts drily, "Then God will surely be surprised, and he will listen to you."
As Michael studies Armenian history in library books, he learns about the Armenian Genocide, relaying to the audience that in the waning days of the Ottoman Turkish empire, the Turks attempted to "systematically exterminate the entire Armenian race." According to his research, by 1915, "They had starved, beaten, tortured and killed upwards of one and a half million souls," including some of his own ancestors.
When Rose finally tells Michael her heart-wrenching personal stories from that terrible time, she also bequeaths him an unthinkable burden, with a shocking request that casts a different light on all their previous interactions.
Dinelaris' play affectingly both personalizes and illuminates wide themes, including the lasting psychological damage and guilt that come with surviving acts of determined and random atrocity.