When a deliberately neglectful parent or partner abruptly leaves, the clarity of that sharp, defining act can provide a useful—and finite—frame for the feelings of abandonment that follow.
But in his gripping psychological drama The Father, now onstage at Theatre in the Park (TIP), playwright Florian Zeller shows us that when that estrangement is unintentional and stems from a medical condition like dementia, the borders that could limit and contain those feelings can stretch and blur before they dissipate completely.
What’s even more discomforting? Particularly given the dysfunctional state of health care in America, as the schism morphs into a bittersweet but potentially agonizing long goodbye, that state of abandonment—unintended, and sometimes forced—can metastasize, multiply, and spread throughout a family.
A real-life family reconvenes to stage this disturbing story. TIP’s longtime artistic director Ira David Wood III (who goes by David) directed his daughter, Evan Rachel Wood, as a child in shows including The Miracle Worker on this same stage before her Hollywood film career led to central roles like Dolores Abernathy and Christina on HBO’s Westworld. In this production, the pair convincingly plays central characters André and Anne, an aging father and adult daughter who are slowly being torn apart. Evan’s brother Ira David Wood IV (who goes by Ira) directs the production.
Audiences may also recognize the play from its 2020 Oscar award-winning film adaptation (currently available on Hulu) starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colemen.
Dementia’s downward spiral is already well underway by the time we first encounter Anne and André. Anne’s already exhausted by the efforts she’s made to take care of him; after looking in on her father in a series of daily visits, she’s concluded someone needs to stay with him for him to be safe. André’s short-term memory loss—and gradually increasing paranoia as a consequence—are obvious as he casts about suspicions over a watch he’s sure has been stolen because he can’t remember where he put it. But since he remains unconvinced he needs any help, he burns through a series of caregivers Anne has arranged for, haranguing them before physically threatening the last one.
Because Anne is moving to London with her partner, something has to give. But when she reveals that move to André, he feels abandoned.
“The rats are leaving the ship,” he rails, before tacitly acknowledging he can’t function on his own: “What’s going to become of me?”
In a stop-gap measure, Anne moves André into a room in her own home, where his increasing inability to make sense of his changing locale and circumstances takes an inevitable toll—on their relationship and on Anne’s relationship with her longtime partner, Pierre (Chris Hinton). There’s true poignancy when André tries to convince Pierre, whom he cannot remember and doesn’t recognize despite multiple encounters, that there’s nothing wrong with him: “I still have use of my arms, see? And my legs. And my hands. In fact, it all works wonderfully. You agree? Of course you agree.”
Meanwhile, Evan embodies the ever-increasing stress her character is experiencing, going rigid and pursing her lips tightly between her teeth when her father makes a casual, cutting remark.
As Ira’s direction pressurizes the growing tensions within this challenged family, he gives full rein to the ingenious strategies Zeller uses to depict the experiences of dementia from the point of view of the person suffering its effects.
When the last thing André remembers is a moment from months or years before, a character disappears in mid-scene, and André becomes obsessed with finding out where he went. What was a morning mere moments before becomes night. At more than one point André doesn’t recognize Anne’s partner or a nurse he met the day before. When that happens, another actor appears in an identical costume.
When these and other theatrical misplacements occur, David vividly depicts the dilemma of a man whose sense-making mechanism is still desperately trying to function without the continuity of memory needed to do so. Gradually, André becomes aware of his losses: “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves, one after another.”
Dementia is the ultimate form of self-abandonment: the damaged psyche taking panicked, erratic flight from memories that are either inaccessible due to brain pathology or too painful to recall. It’s ironic that the one moment when long-term memory fully functions, it is only to remind André of another loss—the death of another beloved family member.
But when the inevitable moment comes where André doesn’t recognize Anne, abandonment achieves true contagion. Anne says, “It did something to me. I was like a stranger to him.” And as Evan nervelessly intones the line, it’s chilling and clear that her character’s father has achieved a Schrodinger-like state. Like the famous cat, he’s simultaneously there and not there, dad and not dad. In this memorable production, the moment conveys a threat all its own to the sense-making systems of those who care for the disappearing man.
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