A few years ago, a close relative (who is now near 94) had a bout of spiraling anxiety I won’t describe in detail, say to save this: it mimicked the onset and progression of dementia. It lasted a few months, in which he both functioned logically in a day-to-day sense, but was simultaneously convinced of an ongoing threat that would eventually take him away from hearth and home. When he gradually, almost imperceptibly, came out of it (I’m not even sure he remembers it now; but it was a great relief, because once you do go down that particular Yellow Brick Road, you never return from Oz), my own shrink and I were able to dissect it for “tells” indicating that it wasn’t, after all, dementia, but those were only detectable in the aftermath. When you observe someone experiencing false reality as real, there are no tells, only a deeply troubling conviction with which you cannot argue, lest you exacerbate the need for the victim to cling even more tenaciously to a belief in his own senses.
So I was immediately keyed into the game of Florian Zeller’s The Father, when André (Frank Langella in one of his most affecting performances) is having a heated discussion with his daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) about his need for home care—a need he refutes vigorously—and she leaves the room, only to reappear in the person of another actress. And that game is an especially bold one. Simple. Obvious. Yet to the best of my knowledge, never dramatized this way before: dementia from the point of view of its victim. No buffer, no interpretation, no discussion about the nature of the disease or what’s happening to André’s perception of reality. Just things changing. And as we progress through each scene, orientation changing. The inconsistency of who’s who, which dynamic exists with what person, what the flat looks like, whose flat it is.
I was simultaneously wondering if the audience would get it, or at least get it soon enough; if there were enough familiarity with this awful condition, or at least a quick ability to understand the awful condition being presented. (I must confess, I entered the play cold, knowing nothing of its previous international success.) Not only did they understand it, but some were even quite moved by it. And quite right to be. What can be more humanly, quietly devastating—and chilling—than watching a perfectly nice, charming, powerful, irascible, self-possessed man quite literally lose his self-possession and dissolve into endless confusion; helplessly; with no hope of reversal? I might even cite the play as…medically valuable; vital in a documentary sense.
Furthering this impression is a fine cast under Doug Hughes’ almost-clinical (-seeming) direction.
One caveat, however, about the play: periodically, André leaves the stage; and the remaining characters play out that scene’s variation of his perceived world. Intellectually, I understand this: relationships, conspiracies, and circumstances purportedly developed outside of the patient’s direct witness are certainly a part of dementia-borne confabulation. But those scenes never pay off later, in anything André says or perceives, by way of accusation or remembrance. Mr. Zeller may not mean them so, but these scenes play out like a shift in POV. Possibly they’re meant as the audience’s continuation of André’s reality-of-the-moment, but at best that’s a literary conceit; in “our” audience reality, it breaks verisimilitude. There has to have been a better way to conceive them; they seem to have no real function except to get the lead actor offstage for a while; and I’m not entirely sure that’s even technically necessary.
But that’s a small blip in an important play. Its English translation by Brit playwright Christopher Hampton (who has performed the same function for Yazmina Resa, author of Art, as well) is pretty impressive too.
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