“People like us, who believe in physics,” Albert Einstein once said, “know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein meant it as consolation — he was speaking at the funeral of a friend — but alas, for André (Ted van Griethuysen) the distinction has melted and he is in terror. A man of great dignity and self-possession, Andrei finds himself facing some disconcerting uncertainties. Is he in his apartment, or his daughter Anne’s (Kate Eastwood Norris, or, sometimes, Erika Rose)? And who is that man (Daniel Harray or, sometimes, Manny Buckey) in the apartment with them? Why doesn’t his other daughter, Elise, come to visit them any more? And where is his damn watch?
The Father comes to us as a comedy might: André, having terrorized his nurse into resigning, now must confront his daughter, who has a terrible dilemma. It is this: she is moving from Paris to London to be with her lover, and must find a solution for her father, who is slipping into dementia. She cannot look after him, and if she can’t find a caretaker she will have to have him committed. André, who has a robust sense of his own capability (if not a robust capability) doesn’t see what the fuss is about: he will care for himself, as he has for decades. He puts up defenses and evasions which are instantly identifiable to anyone who has coped with dementia, in any capacity. They all end up with and she stole my watch.
But it’s not a comedy; it’s a tragedy, for the same reason that John Dunne suggested that you not ask for whom the bell tolls. Playwright Florian Zeller’s genius idea is to tell this story from André’s point of view: his confusion is our confusion, and his fear is our fear. In the second scene André discovers that he is not in his own apartment, but in Anne’s, and she is living with Pierre — her lover? her husband? And — but is this African woman his daughter Anne? She insists that she is! And then we are in the third scene, and Anne is living not with Pierre but with Antoine. And then they are back in Anne’s apartment, and she is living alone, introducing André to a caretaker: Laura (Caroline Dubberly). André is driven from pillar to post; he must maintain control over his environment, but he cannot, since it keeps shifting from scene to scene.
No story about an Alzheimer’s sufferer has a happy ending, and this one doesn’t either. Zeller, and Studio Theatre, offer immersion, not resolution. If you are reading this you are likely not to have suffered dementia yourself, but you can see what it’s like through André’s eyes. He is a precise man — you can see it in his immaculate apartment (Debra Booth’s customary excellent work) and meticulously-trimmed beard, and we later learn that he was an engineer — and he reacts to the growing disorder in his mind as he might react to finding a nest of poisonous snakes in his home. What appears to his daughter to be childish willfulness is in fact a series of desperate stratagems to reclaim the rational universe. None of them work.
closes June 18, 2017
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Frank Langella won a Tony for playing this role on Broadway, but I can’t imagine he did it any better than Ted van Griethuysen does. Now in his eighty-third year, van Griethuysen radiates the sort of cultured urbanity we need to see from André in order to make us fully appreciate the tragedy of his fallen estate. And yet behind his impeccable manners is a pit bull in defense of his own sanity, and van Griethuysen has no problem bringing him out. “Do you think I’m retarded?” he suddenly spits out at Laura when she begins to infantilize him. Later, when he can no longer deny what is happening to him, he cries “I feel like I’m losing all my leaves.” van Griethuysen hits all these spots, and everything in between, making André as authentic as your uncle in the nursing home.
I must say I struggled with Buckley as Pierre, Anne’s husband and chief advocate of the nursing-home solution for André. Pierre is a cruel man (or perhaps this is just how André imagines him) but Buckley comes across as emotionally flat, at least to me. The rest of the cast is absolutely first-rate. Norris and Rose burnish their reputations as two of the finer actors to appear regularly on the Washington stage and Dubberly shows us why she is getting cast so frequently, and in such good roles. To me, though, the revelation in this cast is Harray, who fills Man with such a cheerful good nature that when he turns on André, poking and prodding him mercilessly, and ruining his dignity, he seems like the personification of Alzheimer’s itself. I hope we see more of him.
Director David Muse does the crisp work we’ve come to expect of him, and he uses a device he used in his previous work directing King Charles III at Shakespeare Theatre Company. At the end of each scene, the stage darkens dramatically; a chord sounds, loudly and with finality; and lights circle the stage relentlessly. It is as effective in this play, showing André’s irreversible slide into catastrophe, as it was in Mike Bartlett’s play, showing the future King’s inevitable cataclysm.
The Father resembles King Charles III in another way: as the STC production showed the majesty of the English political system, slowly crushing one who would change its usage, The Father shows the majesty of this awful disease, slowly crushing a man who struggles, in Dylan Thomas’ phrase, against the dying of the light. Some plays teach us resolve, and some plays teach us compassion where resolve doesn’t work. The Father is one of those.
The Father by Florian Zeller, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, directed by David Muse. Featuring Ted van Griethuysen, Kate Eastwood Norris, Daniel Harray, Erika Rose, Caroline Dubberly and Manny Buckley. Set design: Debra Booth . Costume design: Wade Laboissonniere . Lighting design: Keith Parham . Sound design: Ryan Rumery . Fight director: Robb Hunter . Dramaturg: Lauren Halvorsen . Castong: Stuart Howard . Production manager: Josh Escajeda . Stage manager: Sarah Elizabeth Ford . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.