When Claire Chitham treads the boards in her latest play, there will be laughter, jokes and merriment in spades. It comes as something of a relief for the 39-year-old Kiwi actress, who for the past few years has been privately dealing with a heartbreaking family health crisis.
Bravely opening up to Woman’s Day, she tells us that her beloved dad Bryan, 71, is suffering from a rare and devastating type of dementia called Primary Progressive Aphasia, a degenerative disorder affecting the language functions of the brain.
“It’s incredibly heart-breaking to lose someone right in front of your eyes,” she says, explaining that the disease affects her dad’s ability to speak, read and communicate. “It’s the hardest thing to comprehend and even though it’s been happening for several years now, I still get hit by waves of grief. It’s been a rocky road for my whole family.”
Claire was living in Los Angeles back in 2014 when her mum Melanie mentioned that something seemed “not quite right” with her salesman dad. Brushing it off, Claire assumed all would be well, but a visit home at Christmas was a wake-up call.
“It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly the problem was, but there were words he couldn’t quite get out or you’d get the feeling he couldn’t follow certain things when you were talking,” she tells. “You could see him struggling.”
A visit to the doctor led to many months of uncertainty as specialists searched for answers. At the same time, Bryan’s communication issues were getting worse – both his ability to express language and his comprehension.
Finally, in October 2015, the diagnosis came.
“It was strange. On one hand we were pleased to finally have a name, but we soon discovered that the condition is so rare that it was still hard to find any answers. We still don’t know exactly what’s going to happen or if he will end up unable to speak at all.”
While Claire had initially planned to return to her newfound home of LA to pursue her acting passion, it was clear she needed to be in Auckland, close to her family.
“I don’t want to be away from my dad at all at the moment,” she tells us, saying that any work trips abroad now are always short ones.
“I don’t have a problem with that, though. Being home is the most important thing to me. I want to be close to my dad and I need to be here to support and help Mum.”
And in the past few years, the former Shortland Street star has had back-to-back work – no mean feat in New Zealand. “It’s just been one opportunity after another,” she smiles. “It’s bittersweet really. I’m in NZ for a really sad reason, but actually, work-wise it’s worked out really well. And I’ve got a great pad with two really good friends, so I’m very happy.
“Going through all this with Dad means I’m hyper aware of those grand spiritual notions like ‘Life is short’, and the importance of living in the present moment. Yes, I get hit by the ‘poor mes’ at times and I can’t help but feel sad that if I have kids they won’t know the man he used to be, but there’s also a lot to be grateful for.”
Claire is at pains to give thanks to Auckland Dementia, a support organisation that’s been invaluable to her family. Carers help Bryan three days a week, and Claire, her mum and two brothers do their best to keep him “engaged, connected and happy.” They’re thankful he is still able to live at home.
While her sailing-mad dad can no longer head out on the water, Claire tells us that other interests have come to the fore.
“One day he just picked up a pen and sketched the most amazing replica of a landscape he’d seen in a coffee-table book. This is a man who’s never drawn anything in his life! So we rushed out and bought water-colours and coloured pencils, and he’s really loving it. I take him off to art galleries now and my brothers take him out for golf. We all just want to make sure he still has a life filled with dignity, pride and fun.”
While Claire makes sure she sees her parents several times a week, she’s also deep in rehearsals for Auckland Theatre Company’s latest show Nell Gwynn. Set in London in 1660, Claire’s colourful character Nell – a longtime mistress of King Charles II – takes centre stage alongside acting legends Tim Balme and Mark Hadlow.
“I call it a rom-com,” Claire tells us. “It’s just a big, chaotic, rollicking good time.”
She describes Nell, who was a 17th-century media sensation, as a trailblazing, man-eating feminist.
“I actually identify with her more than any other character I’ve played – although not the man-eater bit!” laughs Claire, who’s happily single. She’ll even be singing in the show, which she admits makes her a little nervous.
“With acting, sometimes it’s real and sometimes you fake it. With singing, there’s nowhere to hide. So I’m working really hard on it.”
One thing’s for sure – come opening night on August 17, Claire’s dad will be in the front row to see his only daughter give it her all. “He’ll love it. He loves nothing more than laughing at me, so this is the perfect play for him.”
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