To the Tetons with Lear: loving memories of Christopher McHale 2


It was April 2008, and a glorious time to be in the region of the Grand Teton mountains of Utah. I was there, of course, for the majestic scenery but also to hunker down, indoors, in a dark theater, watching my longtime friend Chris McHale (1954-2023) scale his own high peak playing the titular role in King Lear, as a guest artist of the Utah State Theatre.

After the performance we went on a short road trip, a photo from which published above.

McHale, who died in New York last Tuesday, April 12, 2023 just a year short of turning 70, was an artist of a pure constitution. His range was enormous — as a classically trained actor his portfolio spanned twenty-plus Shakespearean productions, several as a young ensemble actor at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, sharing stages with Al Pacino, Chris Walken, Raul Julia, Ethan Hawke, Mary Beth Hurt, Denzel Washington. His mastery of texts was prodigious, and he was a director’s actor in this regard. He was also a devotee of modernist playwrights — from O’Neill to Beckett to Albee to Behan to Shepard to Stoppard to Hare. A recent coup was recognition with both Tony and Obie awards as a cast member of Oslo at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, directed by Bart Sher.

Chris’s commitment to the life of an actor, at times hard-scrabble, never wavered. It prevailed through dry spells he found nearly intolerable. He was not going to have a second career, a back-up thing. He would be an actor — and then he would die. And so it was. He recently told me that his singular raison d’etre was to be in rehearsal, among peers, with a director, hammering out the rendering and staging of theatrical texts. The actor’s creative process, full stop. That, and that alone, gave his life fulfillment.

I was a friend of Chris’s since age fifteen, when his talent was first recognized and nurtured at Pittsburgh’s Mt. Lebanon High School by his mentor, the school’s drama teacher, Julian Myers. Chris’s gifts — a lithe, six-foot-plus, athletic body, sonorous voice, moptop of wild-growing curls, piercing brown eyes — removed him from the realm of his cohort of actor-aspirants. He was one of those young people whose career aim was unambiguous and he held to it tenaciously. He burned through four years at one of the nation’s foremost drama academies, Carnegie-Mellon University, a bright flame, while others flopped around, dropped out, were directionless. And then to New York. At CMU, Chris connected with his long time friend Howard McMaster, later becoming besties with Howard’s wife, Jo Sarzotti, as well.

Christopher! Loquacious, passionate, caring, sensitive, hilarious, contrarian, intransigent! Politically astute, he was a rabid leftist who walked the walk. A voracious reader, particularly of non-fiction, his deep knowledge of American and European history informed his profession, but also forged his values. The most loyal of friends, he was always up for a movie, always in a theater, followed by a gabfest for hours on end, particularly over a Guinness at an Irish-tinged, working man’s bar. Social pretension, materialism, intellectual or social fads eluded him. He remained unmarried, but a good friend to women; he loved and appreciated, beyond all others, actresses. The time shared in Utah was a rare opportunity to be with him away from New York, although he lived the life of a gypsy actor, settling in for long stays at less than five star hotels, housed by regional theaters. Still, there was something so very special to share time with King Lear in the Grand Tetons.

Please read the obituary of my too-soon-departed friend Chris McHale. It was prepared by his surviving siblings Brian, Kevin, and Claire. Chris was the son of Robert and Dorothy McHale.

Dance critic Debra Levine’s feature articles, reviews, and interviews have been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, DANCE Magazine, EMMY Magazine, South China Morning Post, and more. She is the author of an upcoming biography of the choreographer Jack Cole.

2 thoughts on “To the Tetons with Lear: loving memories of Christopher McHale

  1. Bill Kux Sep 20,2023 8:05 am

    Such sad news. I worked with Chris in 2001 in Cincinnati. We had a ball performing Art by Yasmina Reza. We understood each other immediately having spent some 20 years in regional theater. The 3 of us (Tim Donoghue) loved to rehearse and enjoyed working hard then having a well deserved drink. A great guy and a wonderful acting partner.

  2. Mark Levine Sep 18,2023 4:41 pm

    Beautiful tribute. Sorry for your and the theater’s loss.

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