To the Tetons with Lear: loving memories of Christopher McHale 8


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, September 12, 2023 half 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. After an apprenticeship at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C., then to New York.

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.

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

  1. Olivia Keister Apr 24,2024 8:49 pm

    I was deeply saddened over Christmas last year when I started wondering out of the blue what ol’ Chris McHale was up to, and discovered that he has passed only a month or two prior.

    He was someone I loved going and having beers with. He always drank Guiness, and I always drank Corona. His haunts were then The Cedar Tavern and the Telephone Bar and Grille.

    He was an excellent conversationalist. He was so damn well-read. So smart. We’d talk for hours on end. I wish I could do that again…

    God Speed, Chris. xx

  2. Brian McHale Oct 16,2023 11:41 am

    In reply to Anthony Giardina’s query: the celebration of Chris’s life will be held at his local, The Penny Farthing, in their events space, the Linen Hall, 103 3rd Ave. (at 13 Street), Oct. 29, 4-6 pm. There will be an opportunity for anyone who would like to speak, or to read, sing, etc., to do so.

  3. Jayne Shepherd Oct 15,2023 7:36 pm

    Debra, a beautiful tribute to our friend Chris. I loved working with him in many productions at Mellon Jr. High and through Mt. Lebanon High School as a behind the scenes person. As I read this tribute, I remember many of his characteristics as you beautifully described him. Though we lost touch after he graduated from CMU, I always knew he had the tenacity and the grit to make acting his career. Thank you for giving me a glimpse of his successes and the remembering the wonderful person! So sorry for this loss to his family of origin and the theatre as well as many friends. Thank you for reminding me of great memories.

  4. Anthony Giardina Oct 13,2023 10:40 am

    I first met Chris in 1977, when he was likely just out of college, a member of the acting company at Arena Stage. He was assigned to take notes for me during previews of my first play, Living at Home. That summer we brought him to Provincetown to play a major role in the play, and I fell in love with the clarity of his acting, his honesty, his rawness. I began writing parts for him- some of which he was able to do, at Arena, at Yale Rep. One of our saddest moments was when I wrote a part for him- even named the character CHRIS- and then, after it took 10 years to get the play on, he was too old to play it! I loved hanging out with him, listening to his fiercely held political views and his equally fiercely held determination to never allow his romantic life to take him further than he wanted it to. Perhaps my sweetest memory, though, is of the two of us in Provincetown, drinking beers and competing as to which of us could do a better impersonation of Eric Burdon singing “San Francisco Nights”. Wonderful actor, beautiful man.
    Can somebody please tell me where his memorial service is going to be held on 10/29? I’d love to attend.

  5. Lori Grupp Oct 12,2023 5:05 am

    It’s hard not to think of you as Debbie, as you and I go back a long, long way to Country Club Drive. Greetings from the suburbs of Chicago!
    I’m grateful for your beautiful remembrance and tribute to Chris. I’ve wondered about him so often and you’ve resolved many of the things I wondered about. I’m glad the boy I first acted with in 9th grade (he was the Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, I was the Gryphon), lived his life the way he wanted, doing what he loved.
    You’ve enhanced my memories of Chris; thank you.
    Hope you are well and happy.
    Fond regards,
    Lori Grupp

  6. Sharon J Krinsky-McHale Oct 4,2023 10:02 am

    Hi Debra, this is Sharon McHale, Chris’s sister-in-law, I am married to Kevin. This is such a beautiful tribute to him. As Kevin has probably told you, there will be a celebration of Chris’s life on 10/29 at his local bar. I have a memory book so that people can share a memory, a story. I would like to add this tribute to the book if that is OK with you. It is too special not to share with those who loved him.

  7. 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.

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

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

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