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How the tragedy in ‘The Father’ taught me a surprisingly hopeful lesson about my own

Anthony Hopkins in a bathrobe
Anthony Hopkins stars in the Oscar-nominated drama “The Father.”
(Sean Gleason / Sony Pictures Classics)

The first time I saw “The Father” with my father was more than a year ago. By then, Dad had become my go-to plus-one to shows all over Los Angeles. Neither of us grew up going to live theater regularly, and we consider it a treat every time. After each performance, we talk about what we loved and what we learned; often our discussions about a show continue weeks or months after we see it.

The play, which playwright Florian Zeller describes on the title page of the script as “a tragic farce,” opens with a daughter, Anne, visibly frustrated that her father, André, has sent away yet another home attendant who must’ve swiped the watch he can’t find. Yet André, with a towering bravado and even a bit of charm, insists he’s fine in the apartment on his own and that she worries way too much. It all plays out like the taping of a fast-talking sitcom, and the Pasadena Playhouse production’s audience of wrinkled, white-haired patrons chuckled in unison at André's punchlines.

The next scene sees André confronted by a man he’s never met, who insists he’s lived at the apartment for years. Anne arrives, but André doesn’t recognize her — and neither does the audience, as she’s suddenly played by another actress. New Anne says there was no man, even though André, and everyone watching him, has definitely just met one.

“Are you having memory lapses or what?” André asks Anne, the giggling of the audience beginning to fade. “You’d better go and see someone, old girl. I’m talking about something that happened not two minutes ago!”

This is the clever framing of “The Father”: It brings the viewer inside André's mind as it unravels. Translated into English by Christopher Hampton, the play lets you think you know what’s happening, but apparently you don’t, even though you could’ve sworn you heard that conversation correctly. The stage goes completely dark after each short scene, and when the lights turn back on, you have no idea where you are or how much time has passed. You might not recognize the people before you either — even though you’re told that you know them quite well.

Florian Zeller’s drama “The Father” stars Alfred Molina as a man whose slippery grip on reality places the audience in storytelling quicksand.

Alfred Molina and Pia Shah in "The Father" at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Alfred Molina (with Pia Shah) starred in “The Father” at the Pasadena Playhouse.
(Jenny Graham)
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“The Father” debuted as a French-language play in 2012 and has been staged in more than 45 countries. The role of the prideful, volatile André has been played by Frank Langella on Broadway, Kenneth Cranham on the West End and Robert Hirsch in Paris. I was taken aback by the fact that the Pasadena production starred Alfred Molina who, with his healthy head of brown hair, looked a generation younger than most of the show’s ticketholders. In fact, Molina is only some years older than Dad, which made André's slippery memory and growing paranoia all the more terrifying to me.

“Isn’t that sad, how the last person you see at the end of your life might be someone who’s being paid to take care of you?” Dad said after the show, referring to its final scene, in which André wakes up disoriented in a nursing home. He noted how productive it was to have seen it with me, who will likely contribute to his care later on, and vowed that, if he were to be inflicted with dementia, he would not be as cruel to me as André is to Anne. I told him that the play helped me understand how such overwhelming uncertainty could make a parent so frustrated and defensive that he lashed out at his child.

“The Father” was the last show Dad and I saw together, in person and in a room full of strangers, before the COVID-19 shutdowns. In the months that followed, we often revisited the topic with new revelations, especially since he’s gotten more involved in the care of his own parents, while the pandemic barred me from spending any time with mine. For him and his siblings, Anne’s urges for André to understand and accept the situation had become their own collective plea.

“That unwillingness to release control, and learning to allow people to help you, is so difficult,” Dad told me. “And I get it. Throughout your entire life, you’ve taken care of everything, including your kids, and then suddenly you have to depend on them for everything? And they are the ones telling you what to do? Of course, you’re not going to agree.”

Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman lead the cast of “The Father,” an examination of the shattering impact of dementia.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in "The Father."
Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in the film adaptation of “The Father.”
(Sean Gleason / Sony Pictures Classics)

The second time I saw “The Father” with my father was in October. The spread of the novel coronavirus had slowed for the time being and, after a negative COVID-19 test, I put on a mask and entered my parents’ house for the first time in seven months. It was the only time either of us had seen each other, or any loved ones outside our immediate households, since the pandemic began.

Seated six feet apart in a large living room, we watched the film adaptation of the play — a decidedly quieter affair, not only because there’s no laughing audience to pause for but also because the camera lingers on the lone figure of Anthony Hopkins’ patriarch, accompanied only by ambient noise. These frames have become familiar to people like my dad’s parents, who have isolated themselves for their safety. “Getting older is so damn lonely,” he told me, “the days are so long, and the years are so short.”

We filled the silences with our observations of the movie, directed by playwright Zeller: how the editing effectively blurs the passage of time, how the apartment steadily feels less familiar and how the story, though still told from the father’s confused point of view, occasionally zooms in on Anne, too exhausted from the latest emergency and accompanying temper tantrum to focus on her own personal life. We debated whether her nightmare, in which she dreams she was strangling her father, was more effective when recounted in the play or portrayed in the movie.

In the last scene, Hopkins’ character — named Anthony in the movie — is told that his daughter now lives in another city, a piece of information that’s as new to him as it is to the viewer. “I tell you this every day,” the nurse says. “She comes to see you sometimes. Occasionally, she comes for the weekend. She comes here. You go for a walk in the park. She tells you about her new life, what she’s up to.”

Anthony, who cannot recall such a visit or even his own name, then sobs without restraint, like a child who can’t seem to locate his parents. “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves,” he says. “The branches, and the wind and the rain ... I don’t know what’s happening anymore. Do you know what’s happening?” Though the nurse does her best to console him, he cries while shutting his eyes as tightly as possible, as if the loss — of his once lucid mind, his sense of self, his remaining hope that his condition might improve — is too much to bear.

Anthony Hopkins in "The Father."
Anthony Hopkins in “The Father.”
(Sean Gleason / Sony Pictures Classics)

“Aging is so difficult, because I think everyone has secret dreams about what that time will be like,” Dad said after the film, speaking as someone who is caring for his parents and who might need such care down the line. “They say, ‘I’ll travel, I’ll lay on a beach, I’ll go golfing every Tuesday and Wednesday, I won’t have to answer to anyone. This is the life I’ve worked so hard for.’ And yet, something always gives up — the body or the mind, each on its own schedule. Meanwhile, the younger generation says, ‘Let us live. You had your turn, let us have ours.’”

At that moment, I wanted to cross the room and give him a hug. I wanted to tell him he had plenty of time before he’d feel as if he were losing all his leaves and that my definition of “living” includes spending time with him, well before he can no longer remember my name or place my face. I wanted to tell him that any loneliness we have felt during the pandemic was bound to end very soon.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Because there’s no telling if or when dementia may appear, just as there’s no cure. Instead, I left my parents’ house and, due to the winter coronavirus surge in L.A., I have not been back since.

I am lucky I saw “The Father” alongside my father, onstage and on-screen. I am lucky we live close enough to each other to meet up on a given night, that we can make time to enjoy a live performance together, that we both relish the chance to discuss the work afterward. I admit this was not always the case; it took me far too long to view my parents as people distinct from their familial roles and myself as someone who could have a mutual friendship with them.

I want to get to know my parents better, before anyone moves away, before anyone’s mind deteriorates, before anyone dies. After all, “The Father” does not show us what Anne’s relationship with her father was like before the action begins, so its tragedy is doubled: He not only loses his autonomy and mental agility but with it the lifetime of memories he once shared with his daughter. To me, both outcomes are equally heartbreaking.

Before “The Father,” I had only just begun to get to know Dad — and now, due to the pandemic, I’ve already lost a year of that deepening connection. But as the county’s numbers level off and the vaccine distribution continues, I look forward to when we can safely sit side by side at the theater again, and for many years to come.

‘The Father’

Rating: PG-13, for some strong language, and thematic material

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: In general release where theaters are open; available March 26 on PVOD platforms


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