Florian Zeller is not quite forty, and yet he is already one of France’s most accomplished playwrights. He has won prestigious theater awards in his home country and his work has been compared to Harold Pinter at its most lively and cutting. After successful runs in London and New York, Zeller’s The Father is in D.C. The play was translated by Christopher Hampton, who wrote the film adaptations of both Atonement and Dangerous Liaisons, and here the economical, crisp language unravels into tragedy. Director David Muse and his accomplished players push theater as a medium to its subjective, haunting limits.
The set is an elegant, tasteful Paris flat. Its occupant is André (Ted van Griethuysen), a retired engineer who is both frustrating and charming. He complains about his lost watch, while his daughter Anne (Kate Eastwood Norris) reveals she knows about his secret hiding place. He’s furious: how did Anne figure out where he hides his valuables? We learn a little bit about Anne – she’s leaving for London, with her new lover – and the scene abruptly ends. The next one takes place sometime later, and Daniel Harray plays a man who says he is Anne’s husband. A perplexed André wonders how that’s possible. Does the man know about Anne’s new lover? The man offers few answers, and André’s confusion deepens.
The Father never uses the words “dementia” or “Alzheimer’s,” and yet they’re the subtext for every strained interaction between André and the people who wander into his life. There has been lots of terrific fiction about memory loss – Sarah Polley’s amazing film Away from Her comes immediately to mind – but the point of view is usually from the family, not the afflicted. Zeller’s elegant script flips that objectivity on its head: through shrewd writing choices, he puts the audience into the confused state of his hero. Throughout The Father, I found myself wondering what is real and who to trust. The cumulative effect is almost like a thriller. André does not see himself as a burden each moment feels like lucidity, and we are left to fill in the cracks. The breakdown of André’s reality soon takes on a physical dimension, with pieces of the set being struck from the stage, until all that’s left is a sterile twin bed. It is a powerful metaphor, made all the more bracing that the play is never maudlin.
Ted van Griethuysen has been a mainstay of the local theater scene, and he’s a perfect fit for André. The performance requires carefully modulating his facial tics, suggesting varying degrees of mental acuity, and van Griethuysen has the sort of subtlety that causes audiences to lean in closer, trying to guess how much André intuits at any given moment. The supporting actors, Norris and Harray are particular, strike a difficult balance. Sometimes they are sympathetic to André, and there are moments where they patience slides toward cruelty. The remaining actors – Erika Rose, Caroline Dubberly, and Manny Buckley – also add a sense of unease to the drama. In particular, Dubberly has a warm, friendly face, so when it drops, it is downright chilling. Muse and his lighting designer Keither Parham embellish the effect with frequent strobe lights. Their use represent the beginning and end of memory, serving as stark reminders of how ephemeral it can be.
There is a familiar refrain that diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s are harder for the loved ones. After watching The Father, it’s hard to believe that anymore. While family may mourn their aging parents, letting go of the person they once were, Zeller’s play suggests that memory loss is like a horror movie with an audience of one. There are no exit signs, however, and there is no solace in the fleeting moments of recognition. The Father is not a cruel play, exactly, because its stagecraft is as clever as its characters. André, Anne, and the others can be funny, and push through pain with witty barbs or complaints about the furniture. By the end, however, André reverts back to the simple, heartbreaking needs of childhood. He ultimately lacks self-awareness, but Zeller’s unflinching, clear-eyed writing shows us how he gets there.