Mothers say that holding their children for the first time is the ultimate example of immediate unconditional love. Corinne Chateau felt that deep connection when she held Cali, only he wasn't her son, but a baby she had seen in a picture and traveled a great distance to meet. A career- driven actress, Chateau had waited to have children, and finally decided on adopting internationally. I met her at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater just before a dress rehearsal for her play, The Sun Shines East, which tells of her tumultuous, yet incredible path to becoming a mother.
"One thing about being a mother is not giving up. There were so many opportunities where we could have," she said.
In your thirties, you were focused on your career and hadn't thought about a family.
My whole life was acting. That was my obsession, and what I cared about. I was an only child, and didn't have the kind of mother who was around too much. The important thing in my life was to do something, not so much be a wife or mother. And then, in my late 30s, I came to a kind of existential moment when I said, "What am I doing with my life? Is it just about getting an acting job? It's got to be more than that."
When you came to the realization that you wanted a child, were you married?
I was living with my future husband, Brian Hickey, who I met at The Actors Studio. We had been living together for four years and then we married. That was after my first pregnancy, which was a miscarriage, and then I had a second one a few years later. I was perfectly healthy, and never anticipated miscarrying.
How did your interest in adoption begin?
The famous Swedish actress Bibi Anderson was in New York. It was the time of the Bosnian war and she was dedicated to helping artists and people suffering in Sarajevo. I met her through a friend and helped her fundraise. Her dedication to helping these people who were under siege really moved me. After hearing about all the orphans, I ended up calling the UN and asking if people were adopting them. They said that they were not allowing foreign adoption. Somehow, that just triggered something in me.
How did you decide on the Republic of Georgia?
I knew I wasn't going to do a domestic adoption. I mean, that's great, but I was pulled to something distant, but it was also east. And my mother's side, which I didn't know very much about, comes from the East. My mother was born in Warsaw and escaped with her mother and grandmother during the War. Something about the Republic of Georgia - the Golden Fleece, the high mountains -- there was some kind of mystique for me, like a spiritual pull to that place. I also think the process had to be difficult for me to know that I really wanted to do it, that I wasn't just going to change my mind tomorrow.
You knew you wanted an infant, right?
Yes, that was the other thing. I did investigate Russia, but I heard it was impossible to get babies under a year old. It was very important for me to get as young as possible. I knew, somehow instinctively, the younger the better because of what happens in all those months that the baby is not getting the love, attention, and stimulation he or she needs.
You got a picture of Cali first.
With international adoption, they have a coordinator here and one in that country. Our son was relinquished in a hospital. I got the picture, and could say "yes" or "no." And they tell you that you still can, once you go there, say "no." I knew that would not be an option for me. It would push all the buttons in me where I'd been rejected. I also knew I couldn't go by a picture.
So you went to Georgia to see the baby. What was that like?
Within three days, my husband and I knew for sure. Cali was three months old at the time. It was not a good situation in Georgia at the time, because they had just come out of civil war. There was no heat, electricity, nothing in the stores. Unbeknownst to us, the president of Georgia's wife, Mrs. Shevardnadze, was on this very fierce campaign against Georgian orphans leaving the country. She was trying to make it so that people could not adopt children, even if they were languishing and dying, which they were. The year that we adopted our son, 20 babies died in the orphanage.
You came back to America without him, and learned there was a moratorium on adoption.
We got on our own campaign to write to senators, congressmen, the Pope, anybody who we thought might feel passionate about helping this child. Our adoption person in California wanted to change us to another program because she had experience with these countries that would go on with the process forever. But we had seen Cali and held him in our arms. In the photo we took, I really felt he was telling me, "Where have you been? I've been waiting for you."
Then you decided to go back to Georgia.
I started to read up on the effects of emotional deprivation on children, and that every day is so crucial in the life of a baby. I was terrified that if it took too long to get him, maybe he'd have attachment problems. After three months, I told Brian we couldn't wait any longer. Our case became very political. My husband knew a man who knew Congressman Gilman of upstate New York. By chance, Congressman Gilman had relations with the Republic of Georgia. He managed to get a verbal promise for the release of our baby. All we needed was this signature from the Minister of Education. It wasn't easy to get the visas, but we ended up going to Georgia for two months.
What did you do there for two months?
We stayed with this fantastic family. We slept on the floor. Every day, we'd be driven to the hospital and spent about five hours with Cali. Brian went over first and warned me, "Be prepared when you see him, he's a little depressed." The miracle of the whole thing was that every day that we were there, Cali got better. The Minister of Education didn't speak a word of English, and I had to go through a translator. I was shaking like a leaf, trying to communicate. He kept saying, "We'll try. We'll see what we can do." And then three days later, he gave his word.
How did you turn this story into a play?
I felt that the story had been so miraculous, so I wanted to share it. I had an image of the long hallway in the hospital - dank, cold, and dark. And as I was walking toward the end of it, where I was going to see this baby for the first time, it was like a near-death experience. Your whole life flashes in front of you. I first wrote it as a short story, then I created a one-woman show. I then brought it to the Actors Studio and performed it in little theaters. I went back to the studio to do it as an improvisation. Ellen Burstyn, the artistic director of The Actors Studio and the moderator that day, said, "Why don't you try to make a play of this?"
Your husband was by your side though the entire process. How is he represented in the play?
In the play, the husband goes along with it because he loves his wife and wants to be supportive. But once he sees the baby, he completely changes. Then he does everything, writing all the letters, day in and day out, that were absolutely necessary. He becomes so intense, that he's almost the one who has to push his wife and say, "Are you going to give up?"
Cali is now 17 and looking at colleges. Has he seen the rehearsals?
He hasn't. He'll go see the play. I'm nervous about him seeing it. Even though it's based on real events, the play is fictionalized. I made the baby a girl, because I wanted to have a little distance, for his sake.
The Sun Shines East is playing until February 16th.
For tickets, visit https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/931176
Follow the show on Twitter: @SunShinesEast
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