Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Father
Gremlin Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule


Miriam Schwartz and Craig Johnson
Photo by Alyssa Kristine
Whatever giddy pleasures the fading holiday season offered, you can now set those aside and take on the starkly more serious but deeply gratifying rewards of Gremlin Theatre's upper Midwest regional premiere production of The Father. The play, by French playwright and novelist Florian Zeller, takes us inside the mind of Andre, father to Anne and also the unseen Elise, who is in a fairly advanced stage of dementia. Through Andre we experience a revolving array of emotions, from confusion to humiliation to resentment to terror, wracking his days and nights. He is increasingly unable to recognize people, loses track of events, has difficulty distinguishing what is real from what isn't, and imagines conspiracies against him. Through Anne, we experience the sorrow, guilt, anger, and sheer exhaustion of a child torn between caring for a parent whose life is slipping away and seizing the opportunity to live her own life.

The ninety-minute play opens with Anne distraught by the need to hire yet another caregiver for her dad. The most recent one quit after Andre called her "a little bitch" and came at her with a curtain rod. Andre says they are well rid of her, because she was stealing—declaring that his beloved gold watch is missing. He admits that he harbored suspicions and thus set a trap for her, leaving the watch in plain view: now it is gone. When Anne suggests he check in one of the places where he hides his prize possessions, Andre is greatly affronted—until he looks for himself. Regardless, Andre insists he does not need a caregiver, offering a cruel impersonation of a hunched up, dithering soul, speaking in gibberish, as the sort who needs taking care of. Anne knows better, especially as a big change in her life will soon make it impossible for her to continue the intense level of care she has been providing.

The writing is sharp, brimming with both wit and poignancy. Zeller won the Best Play Molière Award in 2014 for the original production in Paris, as Le Père. In its translation by playwright Christopher Hampton, The Father earned multiple nominations for awards, including the Olivier Award for the 2015 London production, and Tony, Drama League, and Outer Critic Circle Award nominations for the 2016 Broadway mounting. In 2016, it was named Best Play by the Academy Theater Awards in Israel. The Broadway run also provided actor Frank Langella with his fourth Tony Award in the title role, certainly a testament to Langella's gifts, but also an indication of the fully developed character Zeller has created, with insights into his fruitless attempts to preserve his dignity, to apply reason and logic to make sense of his circumstances, and the reservoir of anger that boils up as he steadily loses ground.

Craig Johnson, has given numerous stirring performances at Gremlin (Death and the Maiden, Uncle Vanya) and on other stages (The Nether, Gross Indecency—Ivey Award). He digs his teeth into Andre's fraught existence, from recreating the debonair gentleman he once had been, haughtily using sarcasm to protect his self-respect, to flirting shamelessly with a prospective caregiver some fifty years his junior, to succumbing to an almost fetal state. Throughout, Johnson maintains the intelligence still burning brightly within Andre. Dementia is not making him dumber, but driving fault lines through his mental prowess, with memories and inhibitions falling between the cracks. His portrayal is all the more painful to watch because Andre does not blithely retreat into a state of infantile innocence, but is acutely aware of the ground slipping away.

The degree of Andre's regression is born witness by Anne's responses, letting us know when his mind is completely at odds with reality, versus when he is simply be difficult. Miriam Schwartz, a top-drawer Twin Cities actor (who scored a Minnesota Theater Award for her work in last season's Indecent at the Guthrie), delivers an honest portrayal of Anne, revealing the tension between her sense of duty and her fears that her father's growing need for support will sap her ability to pursue her work, her love life, and sense of well-being. Anne may have once had great affection for her father, but in Schwartz' depiction, there is no energy left to express daughterly love. When Andre expresses his preference for Anne's sister Elise, even though her life keeps her too busy to ever visit him, Schwartz masterfully conveys Anne's struggle to remain patient with him. Then, too, it is hard to know whether Andre has just lost his filters, saying things without realizing the hurt they cause, or if he intends to be nasty, to punish Anne for her insistence that he cannot take care of himself.

Along with those two primary characters, we meet a man who appears to be Anne's romantic partner, another man who may be her husband, a candidate to be Andre's new caregiver, and another woman who may be his caregiver, his nurse, or even his daughter. Some scenes depicting Anne with these other characters feel like they anchor the plot, letting us know what is real as opposed to what Andre perceives. Yet, even then, there are contradictions that make it impossible for everything we see to be true. Is any of it true? We can tell, in some cases, that what we see is Andre's delusional perception of events, while other times it feels that we are witnessing the stark truth. But between those points, we are unmoored, on wavering ground that all the more enables us to grasp the anxiety with which Andre faces each new day. Even the setting is uncertain. The program tells us it is a flat in Paris, but we are left uncertain whether it is Andre's or Anne's flat. In the course of the play the elements of the flat itself disappear, leaving Andre in a space void of familiarity.

As Pierre, who may be the man living with Anne, and whose patience is being sorely tried by having Andre to deal with Andre, Peter Christian Hansen gives a strong performance. His expressed concern for Anne to care for herself does not conceal his frustrations at the infringements Andre is making on his life. This explains the open threats he makes to Andre behind Anne's back—or, perhaps, which Andre merely imagines. Olivia Wilusz is sweetly accepting of Andre and "his ways" as Laura, who may or may not be his new caregiver. Matt Wall and Emily Grodzik complete the cast, ably playing the other figures that wander though Andre's mind, if not his actual life.

Ellen Fenster directs The Father with a fluidity that handily makes the shifts above and below the surface of what is and is not real. It is to her credit, as well as to the playwright's, that every new turn of events seems at first blush as if it is reasonable and feasible. It is only in putting the pieces together that we realize the impossibility of everything—and perhaps of anything—in Andre's mind being a picture of objective reality.

Mandi Johnson has dressed the characters in appropriately stylish middle-class attire. Carl Schoenborn's contemporary furnishings seem well suited to a Parisian flat, while his lighting design is very helpful in guiding us through transitions that take us in and out of Andre's fractured perceptions as he views his life utterly falling apart. Sound designer and composer Katherine Horowitz's scoring between scenes heightens a sense of moving through unchartered waters.

The program aptly describes The Father as a "tragic farce," tragic in the inevitability of loss both to parent and child, farcical in the ironic, absurd and derisive episodes that mark the unraveling of Andre's hold on the world. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, there are a surprising number of laughs in the play, which disarm the audience so that the heft is felt with all the more force. Zeller is a playwright worth watching for—his play The Mother, which actually appeared in Paris two years before The Father, will have its U.S. premiere Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company next month.

As the first production seen in 2019, Gremlin Theatre's The Father sets a high bar for the new year. This is as good a production as any I have seen at Gremlin, which is high praise indeed.

The Father, through January 27, 2019, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: General admission - $28.00, seniors and Fringe button holders - $25.00, under 30, pay half your age for any performance. For tickets go to gremlintheatre.org or call 1-888-71-TICKETS.

Playwright: Florian Zeller, adopted by Christopher Hampton; Director: Ellen Fenster; Technical Director, Set and Lighting Design: Carl Schoenborn; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Sound Design and Composer: Katherine Horowitz; Prop Design and Stage Manager: Sarah Bauer; Assistant Stage Manager: Kari Olk; Producer: Peter Christian Hansen

Cast: Emily Grodzik (Woman), Peter Christian Hansen (Pierre), Craig Johnson (Andre), Miriam Schwartz (Anne), Matt Wall (Man), Olivia Wilusz (Laura).


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