BWW Review: Studio's Heartbreaking THE FATHER Explores One of Life's Cruel Fates
Is there any fate crueler in life than losing one's own faculties? While many a playwright has explored memory loss, Florian Zeller's play gives the aging process a new twist in Studio Theatre's heartbreaking production of The Father. Led by the incomparable Ted Van Griethuysen, The Father forms a palpable connection with the audience as it explores what happens when loved ones, and indeed one's own self, become unrecognizable.
Living in Paris, Andre is a former engineer whom his daughter Anne (Kate Eastwood Norris) once described as tough and intimidating. As illness takes its toll, she's wrestling with how to best care for her father amid balancing a new relationship and the search for Andre's new caretaker. This is a situation familiar to countless theatergoers who have had to care for an aging parent or loved one.
What makes The Father notable is that we also watch the events unfold through Andre's perspective. At first he's in his apartment, then Anne's apartment, or is it the other way around? Is Anne married to Anton (Daniel Harray) or dating Pierre (Manny Buckley). Also, why does Andre's caretaker Laura (Caroline Dubberly) look like his daughter Elise, or is it his daughter who also looks like his caretaker?
At first The Father can be disorienting, but that's what makes Zeller so clever. As frustrating it can be for us, think about living life like this and we suddenly get a sense of Andre's reality. Enhancing that feeling is Debra Booth's chic, ultramodern Parisian apartment and Keith Parham's jarring light design. Elements of which are constantly interchanged, creating confusion as to our location. David Muse's direction constantly keeps us guessing about whether the events we're watching are real, imagined by Andre or dreamt by Anne.
Now, I must confess, van Griethuysen is one of my favorite actors. Ever since I saw him in Studio's brilliant two-part production of The Apple Family Plays he consistently dazzles me with his depth, insight and humor. In The Father, van Griethuysen shines. He's able to balance Zeller's traces of black humor, with the gravitas of a man struggling to retain his memory. He also brings a conspiratorial nature to the role, trying to make sense of the various characters' comings and goings, not quite sure what is real and what is a figment of his imagination. It's that attribute that best underlies the constant state of Andre's life.
Norris is absolutely stoic and poignant as Anne. Throughout the play, we see the inner turmoil and emotional pain over how to best care for Andre in her face, which seems to always be on the verge of tears. Ultimately, she's wrestling with two questions: how to best care for her father and how to best live her life. And yet, Zeller makes it clear there are no easy choices. Norris also splits the role with ERIKA ROSE, giving us yet another example of the confusion that fills Andre's life.
If there is a villain in The Father its Pierre, played unsympathetically by Buckley. However, his resignation to stick Andre in an "institution" can hardly be described as cold blooded or even ruthless. He has feelings for Anne and they want a life together, but caring for Andre is an impediment to that goal. A nursing home is the quickest solution both for Andre's care and Pierre's rising temper in dealing with him. While we may hate the thought of a nursing home, we can't disregard the play's reality that Andre requires increasingly consistent care and Anne can't do it all.
Dubberly brings an element of warmth and charm to the production. Andre is smitten with his young caregiver, and Dubberly clearly relishes the repartee with van Griethuysen. It's a great juxtaposition to Rose's caregiver, who seems to approach Andre with cold trepidation in the play's second half.
The Father isn't the type of play that will easily lift our spirits, but it does have the hallmarks of great drama. For in one act, 90 minutes, Zeller helps us understand the human condition. Hopefully Andre's fate will be one we only experience onstage, and not in our lives.
Runtime is 90 minutes with no intermission.
Photo: Ted Van Griethuysen and Caroline Dubberly. Photo: Teresa Wood.