THE FATHER, by Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Brian Wagner. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Bill Shein, Amy Hausknecht, Eric Corbett Williams; photo: Cindy Smith
"Memory like an elephant. . .you know, the animal."
Eric Corbett Williams as Andrei; photo: Cindy Smith
Call it Alzheimer's. Call it dementia. The outcome is the same: loss of memory, loss of recognition, loss of reality. Andrei, the hero of Florian Zeller's play, "The Father," now on stage at the Ghent Playhouse in a translation by Christopher Hampton, is suffering from it. He lives in an apartment in Paris that he has occupied for many, many years, cared for by his daughter Anne and occasional nurses and housekeepers. He is uncomfortable with strangers in his personal space and cannot undertand the necessity for their presence. He has no actual comprehension of his mental losses; a bright man with a past history of achievement he can not accept the reality of his situation. In this production director Brian Wagner has armed him with the script of the play about his life so that Andrei can refer to it while playing out the scenes that show his mental decline. It is an awkward choice, for it only adds to the audience's own confusion over what is happening to the man. When, in the final scene, he puts the script away and plays for the impact of the author's words that we realize that this was only a prop and not a need on the part of the actor.
The actor in question is Eric Corbett Williams who makes his first entrance about fifteen minutes before the play begins; he asks for a program and takes a seat. It is only when a call over the stage manager's call box ushers him onto the stage that the truth about what we will experience begins to set in: Andrei is reliving the mental collapse of himself while playing the role of himself in an artificial setting that only resembles his accustomed surroundings. Williams plays the confusion brilliantly. He staggers a bit, stammers a bit, looks at his script for clues, identifies only a few of the players as themselves, confuses the identities of one man for another, of one woman for another.
Each successive scene portrays his living room in a different way, furniture altered, windows and walls shifted. Each moment of his mental decline is unpredictably reordered. The play is as disorienting for the audience as it is for Andrei, and so we, the audience, are remarkably seeing his life exactly as he sees it. Pierre, his daughter Anne's husband or lover, is mistaken for a stranger and a stranger who may be an apparition is addressed as Pierre who becomes violent and aggressive toward Andrei which is something that may or may not be happening in real time. A nurse is mistaken for Andrei's other daughter who may or may not be dead. Confusion abounds and makes this play a unique look into the mind of a man whose mind is deteriorating.
Sarah E. Cooke, Eric Corbett Williams, Amy Hausknecht; photo: Cindy Smith
Amy Hausknecht plays Anne, the only other character who is never mistaken for anyone else. She plays with a calm, resolved voice, a woman who is so practical about her father's decline that she caters to it a bit, but restrains herself from any emotional turbulence. Her playing sets the tone for the entire play. Andrei, clearly, sees her as the guiding force in his life, his daughter, his wife, his mother all wrapped into one person. She is very good at holding things together here and she does so with very little emotional display.
Bill Schein plays "Man" a man of many guises including the occasional Pierre. He delivers nicely in his various personnae including the violent man, a doctor, a friend, and so on. The real Pierre is played by Nathaniel Drake who manages to display a remarkable tolerance to Andrei's inability to recognize him.
The other two women, Meaghan Rogers as Laura and Sarah E. Cooke as "Woman" perform their roles with variations very well. Rogers' principal character is often mistaken for Elise, the daughter who is missing in action here. She handles every assault by Andrei beautifully. Cooke's final character, a nurse with resolve, does wonderfully well playing opposite Williams as she explains that Anne is no longer available to him.
Sam Reilly's set, with its views of a Paris residential street, is perfection. Joanne Maurer's clothing has just enough of a European flair to make us believe these people are Parisian. Joseph Sicotte's lighting is excellent, defining both the reality of the place and the unreality of Andrei's vision of the world.
Brian Wagner's production of this play is unsettling and a bit off-center, just enough for us to begin to feel what the leading man is feeling. If he has underplayed the tension just a bit, he has balanced that with the queeziness of mental illness and when the action turns violent he plays it with both a dreamlike quality and an inherent deliverance of fear. It is a fine job with a difficult play and subject.
Kudos to the theater company for taking on such an unusual play about such a difficult topic. Not many community theaters would risk so much on this topic. I know I like this company for many reasons, and now I have another to add to the list.
The Fatherplays at the Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place, Ghent, NY through October 21. For information and tickets call 1-800-838-3006 or go on line at ghentplayhouse.org.