“Zeller has found a way to put the reality of dementia on stage.”
In the autobiography of actress Shelley Winters, she tells of introducing her parents to a man who’d been hanging around at a theater where she worked. The parents and the guy struck up a friendship and a few weeks later she asked her folks about him, and what he did for a living… she’d assumed he had been inside the theater just because it was warm. “Oh that Mr. Brecht,” her mother said, “he makes costume jewelry. He told us that back in Germany he made ‘jewels for poor people.’”
(That’s Bertolt Brecht we’re talking about.)
The Father continues through September 23. New Hazlett Theater, North Side. www.kinetictheatre.org. 1.888.718-4253.
I don’t know the economic status of the audiences French playwright Florian Zeller is aiming for but in writing The Father, making it’s Pittsburgh premiere at Kinetic Theatre, he has certainly crafted an exquisite jewel of a play.
It’s a perfect piece of theater writing; not a wasted moment with precise characters, impeccable dialogue and a crystalline structure. The Father is a theatrical achievement.
And, in other hands, it might not have been. The Father is about an old man, Andre, who has begun his slide into dementia. His daughter Anne is suddenly confronted with someone who is, at times, a stranger and knowing that she, at times, is a stranger to him
Unlike the probably countless Lifetime TV movies on the subject, the story here is told through the eyes of Andre, not the daughter. Using the elastic reality indigenous to theater, we experience Andre’s episodes of dementia as he does. For example – in one scene his daughter talks about going away for a time, in the following scene the daughter not only tells him she never said any such thing, she’s also played by a different actress; in other words a woman he doesn’t recognize is telling him things he doesn’t remember. Zeller has found a way to put the reality of dementia on stage. Andre’s world is constantly slipping and sliding, nothing is real and it’s all made only worse by the increasing anger and desperation he’s feeling.
This story could only happen onstage; the thudding literalness of film and TV would destroy it. The one downside with this use of …. well I don’t want to call them “tricks” because that sounds pejorative. Let’s say that Zeller utilizes theatrical conventions in an astonishing way, but in doing so constantly calls attention to the theatricality of the event. You’re so blown away by his stage craft that making an emotional connection seems beside the point. That’s one thing about those Lifetime movies… you know you’d be crying buckets at the end.
Andrew Paul directs the show – in a smooth translation by Christopher Hampton – with the same cool, detached and clever approach as the author. It’s “just so” and on point from start to finish.
Sam Tsoutsouvas turns in a leonine performance as the title character. Prowling the stage or whimpering in a corner, fueled by rage, wounded by love, charming, lost … Tsoutsouvas hits each dramatic beat full-on with force and a mesmerizing talent.
Catherine Growl imbues the daughter Anne with an aching love which, at times, threatens to crack her in half; watching her conflicted thoughts chase each other across her face is riveting.
I can’t say too much about the functions of Darren Eliker, Erin Lindsey Krom, Lisa Ann Goldsmith and Gregory Johnstone, there’d be too many spoilers, but each bring a compelling power to this brilliantly written, if just slightly frosty, jewel of a play.
Ted Hoover is the Pittsburgh Current Film Critic. Contact him at email@example.com