On Mother’s Day, I saw The Father, by Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by David Muse.
This was a play about a father getting Alzheimer’s, but the audience is thrown into mindset of the man devolving into his illness. To him, scenes meld into each other, sometimes the same scene is played more than one time. Sometimes he can’t recognize his daughter because she’s literally played by another actor. In the same way that the Father can’t tell what’s real and what’s not, the audience isn’t sure what’s happening at any given moment. It’s a confusion that renders the play incredibly powerful.
The set, designed by Debra Booth, was minimal, with 60s furniture. With each scene change, the lights would go out, there would strobe-like lights around the proscenium arch and deep ominous sounds. And then when the next scene started, suddenly a table was missing, or there was a lamp where there wasn’t one before. Furniture and props were constantly so fluid and terrifyingly changing. It was as if we couldn’t trust our own mind to make sense of the set and form of the play.
The lights and sounds, designed by Keith Parham and Ryan Rumery, respectively, were crucial to the show despite mostly only changing during the transitions. They gave us reprieve from and context for the confusion onstage on the part of the Father.
In addition, the costumes, designed by Wade Laboissonniere, were very fluid, they could have been in any decade from the mid-60s to today. The Father literally had no idea where in space or time he was and neither did we. It wasn’t bothersome, but instead allowed for a flexible understanding to arise.
This play will force people to contemplate the mindset of someone who has a disease of the mind. It makes the audience understand the anger and confusion of someone in that circumstance. The Father doesn’t want pity, and neither does the audience. We feel certain we can figure it out if you give us a little more time. But of course, we, and the Father, are not allowed the time to figure it out, and it wouldn’t matter either way.
The acting appeared a little strange to me. That makes sense; the characters were basically viewed through the lens of the Father, but at the same time, it was as if their actions and emotions came from nowhere. The audience didn’t have any context for their emotions, so we, or at least I, couldn’t tell if the actors were being truthful to the characters. Because at the end of the day, I didn’t really know the characters that well.
I have two major criticisms of the play: #1 is that it was translated from French, and unfortunately, I could tell. The entire play felt very French, even though they spoke American English, no part of it felt American. I think that may have hindered the actors from connecting to their characters on a contextual level.
My second criticism is a little more specific. As the daughter of a physician and a nurse, I know that sometimes representations of medical caretakers are inaccurate. I remember watching shows with my mother and her remarking afterward that nobody would ever act like that if they were suffering from XYZ diagnosis or that XYZ diagnosis is totally wrong or that the nurse would never say that to a patient. And I felt the same way here. I questioned the legitimacy of the caretakers because I don’t believe a professional caretaker would ever act like that to their patient or charge. I would probably say this is the fault of the director, although it could have been the playwright, translator, actor, dramaturg. I think they probably needed a medical consultant and I’m not certain they had one.
On the other hand, I thought Ted van Griethuysen’s powerhouse performance as the Father was impeccable. He was angry, charming, confused, silent, boisterous, submissive all within minutes as his surroundings and mind shifted things around him. I thought he accurately and beautifully represented a man with a demented mind.
I’m giving this play a 7/10. It was melancholy and exquisite and forces people to dive head-first into the confusion of a Father who increasingly loses his mind. The substance and form of the play were great, but the problem arose in the execution of the direction, translation, and acting elements.