THE BASICS: THE FATHER, a one-act drama by Florian Zeller, directed by Robert Waterhouse, starring David Lamb opened on April 28th and runs through May 14th, note the short run, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at both 3:30 & 7:30, and Sundays at 2 at the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Avenue on the D’Youville College campus. Wine and beer, fruit and cheese plates, big cookies, coffee available for one hour BEFORE each one-act performance. Runtime: 90 minutes without intermission (829-7668) www.kavinokytheatre.com
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: There’s André whose dementia is growing worse, his adult daughter Anne struggling to balance marriage, work, and caring for her dad, and four other characters. Who are they? Ah, that’s what makes this play so special. We see them as André sees them because we are inside André’s mind, where things that were so clear to us, suddenly aren’t. People we thought we knew, we don’t. People we don’t recognize insist that we must know them. It’s a drama, but André’s brain is turning his everyday reality into farce (improbable situations, quick entrances and exits of characters, mistaken identities). But, this is tragic farce.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Dementia is a brutal disease. I know, because it affected my mom. You lose your loved ones over and over, the death by a thousand cuts. The “big one” is not death. The big one is the day your mom looks you in the eye and asks who you are. And she’s not joking. The physical death, when it comes, is described as “a blessing.” Maybe it is. I wasn’t my mom’s primary caregiver for the final years, my dad was, and his world shrank as hers did, until she finally lived in a tiny physical triangle of bathroom, bed, and kitchen table. Bathroom, bed, and kitchen table.
Words lose their meaning even though the human desire to communicate is there. As André says: “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves.”
The caregivers are exhausted, but what do we know about the sufferer, the one losing those leaves? Not much. You can ask, but you probably won’t understand the answer. There is a famous analogy by Plato about prisoners in a cave who know only shadows on a wall from which they try to create reality. What if those prisoners could see their entire situation? What if they could see what is “Real” (capital R). Here is my big “take away” from watching THE FATHER. When dealing with those with dementia, we too are prisoners, trying to make sense of ravings and fragments, flickers that seem real, words that sound familiar, shadows that, if we hope hard enough, might let us in on the big secret, the big Real that eludes us.
In this play, we discover what it feels like from the other side when one’s gears start to slip, and who knows if that’s not an apt expression, especially if we think of old Swiss watches that had actual gears.
In this play, we discover what it feels like from the other side when one’s gears start to slip, and who knows if that’s not an apt expression, especially if we think of old Swiss watches that had actual gears. (In the play, André is forever losing his wrist watch, but assuring everyone that he owns two – the one on his wrist and the one in his mind. And he continues to lose track of both.)
Of course, modern watches don’t have gears. They have a quartz crystal which oscillates at a precise frequency: 32,768 times each second. So, instead of gears slipping, what if that frequency were randomized? Has it been five minutes or five years? As it describes dementia in the program notes we read that: “… loved ones grow unfamiliar, and chronology – along with the watch in André’s head – is shattered.”
There is an overall dramatic arc in THE FATHER, or rather a jagged line sloping inexorably downhill. We first meet André on stage, fully dressed and shaved, in an apartment full of furniture and familiar tchotchkes. Later in the play he never gets out of his pajamas, nor does he shave, and watch how his environment keeps slipping away at the edges. Director Robert Waterhouse has the entrances and exits of his six characters timed to the second and has worked cleverly with David King’s set to convincingly portray that sense of loss, that closing in of your world.
Director Robert Waterhouse has the entrances and exits of his six characters timed to the second and has worked cleverly with David King’s set to convincingly portray that sense of loss, that closing in of your world.
But let’s get back to that shattering of chronology. It’s not just flashbacks. That would be too simple. What we experience might look like flashbacks, but are they flashforwards? Or flash god-knows-whats? Anna’s husband leaves the living room with a chicken in a grocery bag to go prepare dinner for her and André. We saw the man. We saw the bag with the chicken. We saw the man leave. André asks where “the man” went. Anna asks: “What man? What chicken? Dad, what are you talking about?” We in the audience ask ourselves: “Oh my God, is that what it’s like?”
Kavinoky Theatre Founder and Artistic Director David Lamb plays André, the father. Lamb has been absent from the stage but, as the program states “after a lengthy, illness-induced hiatus…. he is glad to be back in the saddle again in THE FATHER.” And “in the saddle again” is appropriate. An old-school actor, he commands the stage in any performance, so it’s good that he’s the lead character. He probably would be even if he weren’t. Lamb ages convincingly, aided by some pretty nifty make-up that allows his beard to grow ever more scruffy over 90 minutes. And, he grows softer in affect, as old men do.
Aleks Malesj is a local treasure, last seen in the solo role of The Pilot in GROUNDED, and again, this time in the role of Anna, Malesj alternates believably between affection and frustration, support and anger. She is a modern woman with a lot on her plate.
Playing various roles (André can’t keep them straight and remember that in the audience, you are André) there are four other exceptional Buffalo actors whom you’ve seen recently at the Kavinoky and on other major stages in town. Adrianno Gatto plays Pierre, Anne’s exasperated husband, but so does Christopher Evans whose role is simply “Man.” Evans takes on other roles as needed. Kristin Bentley is Laura, the hired caregiver, but so is Jenn Stafford whose role is simply “Woman” and she has a variety of roles, too.
This is a powerful, well-acted, and skillfully directed play. There are no false notes. As a theatrical experience, it’s worth going. But, because we are all living longer and because there is no cure for dementia or its most common cause – Alzheimer’s disease – it’s very likely that either you or someone dear to you will suffer from dementia. For perhaps the first time ever, someone has provided us with the gift of insight, meaning to see from inside another. For some reason, this play is only up through May 14th, so you don’t have a lot of time to get over to the Kavinoky. Go, before you misplace your own watch.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!