Anyone helping a person whose health is deteriorating knows how psychologically grueling an experience this can be. There is nothing gratifying about seeing a person whom you care about weaken in front of your eyes.
As tough as it can be to support someone in a hopeless situation, it’s nothing compared to caring for people whose minds and bodies are in decline. The North Coast Repertory Theatre’s west coast premiere of Florian Zeller’s “tragic farce,” The Father, is focused on a man who is suffering from dementia.
At a Paris flat, a retired engineer Andre (James Sutorius) is looked after by his daughter Anne (Robyn Cohen). When introduced, Andre’s condition is already noticeable.
While he can be articulate, charismatic and smart, his dementia has made him forget about many aspects of his past and present. Anne may try to be a responsible daughter, but her father’s mental disorder is taking a toll on her personal life.
Zeller’s script (translated by Christopher Hampton) is unsparing in the way it treats Andre’s disorder. Although there is humor throughout the evening, the story is challenging and devastating.
The Father’s plot can be difficult to understand. After a straightforward introduction, Zeller’s narrative choices start to reflect Andre’s mental state.
There are instances where this can come across initially as too stylistic, such as when certain scenarios and lines of dialogue are intentionally repeated. While some of these choices might be puzzling at first, they give people a lot to think about following the performance.
Artistic Director David Ellenstein, stages the evening in an uncomfortably intimate way. He directs Andre’s conversations with others with a great deal of tension, particularly as his dementia worsens.
Marty Burnett’s set and Elisa Benzoni’s costumes feature details that tie into Andre’s memory loss. Their contributions help move the story forward very smartly.
Emotional moments are strengthened by sound designer Melanie Chen Cole’s music selections and Matt Novotny’s lighting. Cole’s selections enhance the melancholic tone and Novotny’s visuals are hauntingly used during monologues written by Zeller.
Of course, one of the most important things for The Father to work is the casting of Andre.
Sutorius creates a great deal of audience investment in Andre, even when the character acts viciously towards others. He performs the role with plenty of anger and slowly-building sorrow that’s eventually sad to witness.
Playing the most relatable role, Cohen portrays Anne as equally caring and frustrated. Anyone who has taken care of a person suffering from dementia will empathize with her struggles.
Matthew Salazar-Thompson, Shana Wride, Jacque Wilke and Richard Baird are all cast in smaller supporting parts that are significant to The Father. Each of them hold their own when they are onstage with Sutorius.
If The Father isn’t easy viewing, Ellenstein’s version should still be seen by anyone interested in the subject matter and in great drama. So many films and television shows soften dementia and don’t always depict it realistically. Zeller is pretty truthful about Andre’s problems and I never felt like he ever talks down to theatregoers.
Ellenstein’s staging showcases Andre’s bleak existence with impact and extreme care. It’s a boldly brave show.