The Contemporary Theater Company marks the transition from summer to fall with an outdoor performance of “The Father,” by Florian Zeller.
Set in present-day Paris – though it could be anywhere – the story focuses on an older man, André, as he slides gradually into dementia. André’s frustrated and concerned daughter, Anne, is coping with the reality that her father is no longer able to live by himself. Though the play’s premise is deceptively simple, its complexities reveal themselves gently over the course of the 90-minute, one-act production.
Written in 2012, “The Father” has been one of the world’s most celebrated plays in the last decade. Zeller, an acclaimed French novelist and dramatist, won France’s Molière Award for the play, and the work’s translation went on to open in London and New York, where it received Best Play nominations from the Laurence Olivier Awards and Tony Awards. The translation, by renowned playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, comes across as both idiosyncratic and blunt, revealing moments of emotion but also dark comedy bordering on the absurd. Hampton has also translated the works of Yasmina Reza, whose hit play “Art” was produced at CTC in 2014. Like “Art,” “The Father” unfolds with a surprising tension more akin to a mystery or thriller than the straightforward family drama one might expect.
Zeller, originally a novelist, has become passionate about the unique qualities of the medium of theater, particularly its transience. “What you can see in one night will never happen again,” he said in an interview. “It’s something that will disappear. At the end, when everybody applauds, it’s both to say thank you and goodbye.” In a similar spirit, Zeller’s “The Father” deploys theater to explore the often-taboo subjects of aging and end-of-life concerns.
“The Father’s” primary device is to place the audience in a position of uncertainty and subjectivity. As new characters emerge on stage, we experience André’s dementia with him. The audience is forced to work out, through the context, who they are and what is going on. As scenes or phrases repeat with subtle changes, spectators are disorientated by the instability of reality. Is André’s daughter married or moving to London? Is someone really abusing André or stealing his watch? Are they in André’s flat, or Anne’s? The compression and expansion of time and place help the audience understand why André is always looking for his watch or wondering what time it is.
Under the direction of Ryan Sekac, the staging on the performance patio enhances the production’s central themes. The surrounding noises in the neighborhood, the smoke from the torches, even the blowing wind, all serve to add a haze to the environment, evoking and disrupting a feeling of ease. The feeling is both intimate and vulnerable, as if the whole moment could slip into the night.
The stage, set up here in the round, has no clear defined boundaries as characters emerge from the margins on all sides. On a mid-September’s evening, the transition from dusk into darkness mirrors André’s own descent over the course of the play.
Sekac’s distinct directorial choices also stress the unsettling feeling of loss, even menace. While a production played on an indoor stage might have used lighting cues for scene transitions, here the actors pause briefly mid-scene, before they are unanimated and abandon the scene, only to be replaced by new and unfamiliar figures. No effort is made to conceal the set crew, which periodically enters to remove pieces of André’s living space – a deck of cards, a familiar chair, a bottle of whisky. This underscores André’s paranoia and the sense that something is not just being lost, but being stolen.
The play is often humorous, bordering on farce, but director Sekac also manages to coax understated and emotional performances out of the small ensemble of five. Much of the play rides on its economy of language and sentiment.
Terry Simpson is poignant and affecting in the central role of André. While the character could likely be portrayed with anger, Simpson favors introspection and restraint. The audience catches glimpses of André’s personality, but also glimmers of frustration beneath the charming veneer. Simpson captures the range of André’s bewilderment and dazed anguish, gently shattering the audience toward the end of the play when he cries, “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves.” If this play is about our isolation and loneliness at the end of life, we share in the feeling of compassion, but also helplessness.
Tammy Brown is compelling in the role of Andre’s daughter, Anne. She conveys a weary exhaustion, well-intentioned but unequipped for the role of caregiver. Brown’s portrayal is grief in operation – grace, impatience, and stubborn persistence in absence of hope.
Other players emerge in multiple roles. Maggie Cady doubles for Anne, but also plays a nurse. Cady expresses hope and concern, but becomes something of an unknowing antagonist through her questions (“Do you understand? Do you remember?) and her reassurances (“Is everything all right?”). From the audience’s perspective these come across, heartbreakingly, as both tender and cruel. Laura Kennedy enjoys a lighthearted scene as a hired caregiver, also named Laura, winning Andre’s trust for a fleeting moment. It is a moment of levity and hope, which echoes throughout the play as a bittersweet memory. Rico Lanni and Max Leatham exchange scenes as Pierre, Anne’s apparent partner or husband – or perhaps another love interest. They are both familiar and interchangeable, but also different, enhancing the theme of distortion, while also invoking the specter of abuse.
Zeller has said that he finds theater so deeply moving because, “at the same time as you know everything is false, your soul is transported as if it were true.” What fascinates about “The Father” is how Andre’s disorientation and confusion serve to invoke imaginative truths. It is deceptively simple in scope, but evocative of Lear himself, asking the question, “who is it that can tell me who I am?” This is a play that is simultaneously hard to watch, but also hard to look away.
The setting, at CTC’s outdoor performance patio, reminds us of the powerful way theater can engage audiences with difficult subjects. While some theatergoers might be reluctant to expose themselves emotionally, for one reason or another, to a dramatized exploration of mental degenerative disease, the challenging story of an older man losing control of his mind is told here delicately, with insight, imagination and heart.
Audiences might want to be aware that CTC has partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association and Home Care Assistance of Rhode Island to conduct talk-back sessions and provide information to attendees who wish to participate in or benefit from these supplements. In addition, CTC will present a storytelling event Sept. 20, “When Life Gives You Lemons,” which will share positive stories from families living with dementia.