Without heartbreak, it’s unlikely that a majority of our dramatic works would even exist. Then again, without some pain in the heart, own lives would not be fully realized. One current show on the boards reflect the anguish and pain that reality can bring, and yet it does it in such a superb manner that we feel a wave of catharsis and empathy long before the curtain falls.
80 year old Andre (Frank Langella) isn’t sure of where he is, who his daughter is, or where he’s placed his watch. Eventually, in Florian Zeller’s inventive assessment into the mind of an Alzheimer’s victim, Andre isn’t even confident about his own identity.
Christopher Hampton’s translation of Zeller’s play The Father has finally reached the Eastern seaboard after triumphantly earning multiple awards and critical acclaim in Paris and London. New York audiences have been handed a rare and precious gift with Langella’s performance.
Countless media portrayals and books have tackled the sensitive topic of dementia, but none have done it with a more brilliant approach than Zeller’s work, directed with warmth and intelligence by Doug Hughes. Throughout the 90 minute play, each scene is performed through the eyes and mind of Andre. Sometimes, moments are repeated with a different outcome. If at first it seems confusing, then the effect has been accomplished, for Andre’s mind has taken a detour from clarity. One by one, pieces of his life erode around him until he is left in the loving arms of his caretaker (Kathleen McNenny). Spoiler Alert: There is no happy ending here. The conceit is enhanced with Donald Holder’s scene change lighting, suggesting brain synapses.
Kathryn Erbe is wonderful as the frustrated daughter, Anne, and the rest of the cast is firmly holding their own alongside multiple Tony decorated Langella. Yet this is truly a showcase for him. His performance is subtle and nuanced and by the end, he urges us to confront our deepest need for human interaction, even when our coherent minds fail to express or make sense of the need. Even more painful is the observation of this physically vigorous man as he falls into rapid decline. Langella, now 78, towers above the ensemble at his 6 foot plus height.
As I reflected on the final moments of the play, I came across a poem a few days later. It was written by an anonymous soul during the Holocaust:
“But sometimes in this suffering and hopeless despair, my heart cries for shelter, to know someone’s there. But a voice rises within me, saying, “Hold on, my child, I’ll give you strength, I’ll give you hope, just stay a little while.”
In this case, it is a sentiment that could well be used to comfort both Andre and his family—and for the thousands of Andres and their caretakers who do not have the luxury of leaving their problems at the theater.
For more information on The Father, playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club, check out their official site.