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In My Father's Words

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Muireann Kelly, Angus Peter Campbell, and Garry Collins
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The inability of fathers and sons to connect with one another is not exactly a breakthrough theatrical concept, but playwright Justin Young brings in enough fresh ideas about memory, identity, and the magnificent power of language in his three-character play In My Father's Words to keep it from falling over the cliff of cliché and sentimentality.

The play, a production of the Dundee Rep Ensemble being performed as part of the 59E59 Theaters' Brits Off Broadway festival, takes place in an old timber house on the edge of the Canadian side of Lake Ontario. Don (Angus Peter Campbell), an aging widower long estranged from his son Louis (Garry Collins), has lived there alone for many years. Now, however, he no longer is capable of independent living, and the reunion that neither man is interested in has been foisted upon them by Don's downhill slide into dementia.

Louis, desperate to avoid becoming Don's caregiver (Don is always "Don" to Louis, never "Dad"), has hired Flora (Muireann Kelly) to do the job. But because Flora is available only during the daytime hours, Louis reluctantly agrees to spend his nights there until he can find someone to take on that responsibility. Flora is unfailingly professional, down-to-earth, and compassionate in her care of Don, and she takes it upon herself to try to bring father and son together before it is too late.

But don't cue the violins just yet. What intrigues most about In My Father's Words is not the soured relationship between Louis and Don. Indeed, we are spared any "big reveal" about their estrangement, and there is no great catharsis of deathbed reconciliation. Instead, there are mysteries to be explored about Don's past that pique Louis's interest when suddenly, out of nowhere, Don starts speaking a language that Flora recognizes as Gaelic.

Louis, a university classics scholar, is fascinated with the power of language. He has spent the last decade working on a translation of Homer's Odyssey, and we see him on two or three occasions as he struggles to find just the right words in English that will capture the exact meaning that the poet intended. A bit of a stuffed shirt, Louis comes most alive in scenes where he is lecturing to his students. "Imagine," he tells them, "if everything depended on memory, so that if I couldn't transfer information from my mind to yours, it would simply cease to exist."

So before Don's ability to speak vanishes altogether, before his story "ceases to exist," Louis becomes Flora's student, and she teaches him enough Gaelic so that, between them, they begin to piece together Don's life story that Louis knew nothing about. It is through these scenes that the play, too, comes most alive. Louis lets down his guard and finds his connection with his father through the intellectual pursuit of understanding, a pathway that truly means something to him. His father's story and the story of Odysseus's ten-year journey to return to his homeland after the Trojan War intersect in a way that ultimately allows Louis to find his own way home.

Once the play, which runs for two hours with an intermission, gets past the predictable parts about the curmudgeonly old dementia patient, the fussy scholar, and the kindly caregiver, it really takes off, as do the performances by the excellent cast under Philip Howard's direction. The Scottish Gaelic text, translated by Iain Finlay MacLeod, is helpfully projected in English for the audience.

In My Father's Words
Through June 28
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission
59E59 Theater B, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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