French playwright Florian Zeller has written a play about a man suffering from dementia that doesn’t behave at all like a movie for television, the natural home for family disaster dramas.
“The Father,” crowned in France with a 2014 Molière Award, puts the audience in the position of the memory-impaired. Logic fails, time bends, eyes play tricks. In a succession of short, discontinuous scenes, family members and home aides merge and diverge, leaving not just the afflicted title character but theatergoers in a state of alarm over the apparent collapse of reality.
What’s going on? Hard to say as faces and facts keep changing. Was André a tap dancer or an engineer? Who’s to say? He’s an unreliable narrator who worries that the strangers traipsing through his apartment are gaslighting him.
Zeller calls his play a “tragic farce.” But the work, which has recently been adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, is more clinical than comic. The drama scrambles its storytelling not to yield rueful laughs but to approximate the experience of a medical condition in objective theatrical form.
In the tiptop production directed by Jessica Kubzansky at Pasadena Playhouse, Alfred Molina plays André, an imperious father fed up with the way his adult daughter Anne (Sue Cremin) has been treating him like a forgetful child. Thundering in his apartment like a domesticated King Lear, he objects to her interference in his private affairs, though it’s clear he can no longer take care of himself.
André denies having threatened his last home attendant with a curtain rod, but he does believe this woman pocketed his watch. Anne asks if he’s checked his hiding place in the kitchen cupboard. She knows her father only too well, but she can no longer sacrifice her life for his care.
Long divorced, Anne announces that she’s moving to London to be with the man she loves. But then why does her husband show up in the next scene and call himself Pierre? Wasn’t she married to Antoine? And hold on: Why has she become completely unrecognizable?
“The Father” is meant to be a quicksand. Dreams and hallucinations are as real as the chicken dinner that’s served. André’s foggy mind influences the way the play unfolds, but Zeller’s daring construction dimly suggests that it’s not just one character’s faulty perception but the nature of reality itself.
The play, however, is more adventurous in its format than it is expansive in its vision. The subject matter has a personal resonance for many of us, and I found myself gripped by the accurate depiction of the dementia dilemma.
But I wanted more from the drama than an ingenious theatrical illustration of the problem. I yearned to leap from the medical impairment into metaphor. André can be as volatile as Lear, as Frank Langella took pains to point out in his grandstanding Tony-winning performance. More grounded, Molina draws out the ferocity of a peremptory patriarch in stark decline. But the play doesn’t have the poetic architecture to support the Shakespearean analogy.
André’s suffering is vast, but it’s the nature of his condition that he’s not fully cognizant of what’s going on. Pity and terror, the tragic emotions per Aristotle, are evoked, but in too narrow a band for catharsis to take place. “The Father” shares a title with a naturalistic tragedy by August Strindberg, but unlike that modern classic, Zeller isn’t able to explode the dramatic conflicts into larger meaning.
Christopher Hampton’s translation has a playable fluency, though the characters occasionally strike a British note that shatters the illusion of a Parisian milieu. The scrupulously wrought production, however, earns our gratitude.
Molina, tottering across the clean lines of David Meyer’s beige set, crumples before our eyes into a state of confounded helplessness. A mind is coming undone, but the acting behind the disintegration is always in control.
Cremin’s performance in the key role of Anne is sharply defined. She manages with a look of weary forbearance after one of André’s careless remarks to flesh out a family history. Her predicament, to stay with her father or to save herself, supplies the play with a rich (and active) vein of pathos.
The rest of the cast maintains the production’s tight aesthetic tone. Sound designer John Zalewski demarcates scene changes with a splash of technological music that erases the slate for the next set of encounters.
Robert Mammana and Lisa Renee Pitts play characters who are designated in the program as Man and Woman to reflect their slippery roles. Man is sometimes menacing toward André; Woman tries to soothe and corral him.
Pierre (Michael Manuel), Anne’s increasingly beleaguered support system, wonders how much longer they can keep André at home. Laura (Pia Shah), a new aide, keeps up a cheerful manner that only throws into relief the gravity of the situation.
Nothing can stop André's skid into second childhood. By the time the apartment gives way to a care facility, a father’s towering pride is as faded as his memory. If Molina doesn’t cut a tragic figure, he profoundly touches our sympathies in this portrait of a man losing himself while still alive.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through March 1
Tickets: $25-$101 (subject to change)
Information: (626) 356-7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes