'When the Sign Posts Begin to Disappear'
Review by Nancy A. Olson
Brattleboro Reformer correspondent
WEST CHESTERFIELD, N.H. — When we first meet the elderly Andre in his comfortable Paris apartment, he and his daughter Anne are discussing the precipitous departure of his most recent caregiver. Andre insists nothing happened. He says he did not threaten the woman with a curtain rod although he might have called her names — he doesn't quite remember.
Anne sighs in frustration. She doesn't know what to do about her father. He contends he is quite able to manage on his own, but she has doubts. She can't continue to visit him every day. She wants to move to London with her lover, Pierre. Or is his name Antoine? And is she married to him? Andre isn't sure.
"Why London?" he asks. "It rains all the time there. And what about me?"
In Florian Zeller's play "The Father," translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, and directed in this Actors Theatre Playhouse production by Burt Tepfer, the situation is both farcical and tragic. Andre's behaviors can be humorous, but underneath the humor is the cold reality that dementia is gradually stealing his mind.
"Where is my watch? I've lost it, or more likely it's been stolen," he said repeatedly to Anne.
Andre can be charming — during an interview with the next potential caregiver, he entertains her with an account of his career as a tap-dancer. Anne looks askance behind his back. He can also be brutal, however. He tells the young woman she reminds him of his daughter Elise, whom he rarely sees "because she's traveling."
"I'm so sorry," the young woman says. "Anne told me about the accident."
"What accident?" Andre asks, momentarily derailed. Then he reclaims his thought, saying pointedly, "Elise is my favorite," and we see Anne flinch.
The story is told in a series of vignettes separated by momentary blackouts of the stage. These moments of darkness become symbolic. Each time, as the lights come up on the next scene, one notices that items from the set have disappeared — a picture from a wall, a rug, a chair, until the set is nearly bare.
Sometimes the scenes repeat with slight differences. Is that man in Andre's apartment someone he's met before? Anne's husband, perhaps? Andre is in his own apartment, isn't he? One begins to realize we are inside Andre's head, experiencing these events from his point of view.
The questions he hears are like jabs from a pin: "Don't you remember? I just told you. You remember, don't you?"
Mo Hart plays Anne, the daughter who agonizes over what to do about her father's increasing disorientation. Hart movingly conveys the conflicting emotions — compassion, anger, guilt — an adult child feels as a parent requires ever increasing levels of care. Her recollections of him as a father, when "He had so much authority. I was afraid of him," contrast poignantly with how he looks to her now: "He wanted me to sing him a lullaby."
Supporting players in this production are Jim Bombicino, Sadie Fischesser, Julie Holland, and David Hiler, all of whom contribute to the power of the production.
Without question, though, the evening belongs to Michael Fox Kennedy as Andre. He absolutely captures the evanescent quality of a mind in decline: one moment the person is totally present, then in a flash is lost in the past. In a performance that is a tour-de-force and not to be missed, Kennedy's Andre is by turns endearing, aggravating, funny, and cruel. He also elicits sympathy as we see him in his pajamas peek around the kitchen door to eavesdrop as Anne discusses with Pierre whether to place her father in a nursing home. Watching Andre's power diminish tugs at the heart.
For 90 minutes, this play holds up a mirror to the process of growing old, a universal experience that is different for everyone. How we respond to Andre's story depends on where we are on that continuum. For this reviewer, the evening's performance will reverberate for a long time and calls to mind lines from the "September Song" by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson:
Oh, it's a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
This regional premiere of "The Father" runs for six more performances, Friday and Saturday nights from Sept. 21 to Oct. 13, curtain time, 7:30 p.m. Reservations are recommended. The toll-free box office phone number is 877-666-1855. Ticket prices are, general admission $15, students $8. Actors Theatre Playhouse is located on the corner of Brook and Main streets, West Chesterfield, N.H.