André, it turns out, is suffering from dementia. What’s more, it is through his confused and unreliable perspective that we follow the ever-shifting series of events in The Father, the devastating, mesmerizing play by French writer-slash-enfant terrible Florian Zeller. Premiering as Le Père to great acclaim in 2012 in Paris, the English translation by Christopher Hampton has enjoyed hit runs both on Broadway and London’s West End. The play is also the basis of the 2015 film Floride.
The Village Repertory Company’s pull-no-punches, powerful production, which is directed by Keely Enright, trains a hard, cold eye at the ravages of this all-too-common brain disorder, which works to undermine a person’s very sense of self. The details of a life converge and conflate; loved ones become unrecognizable; and the real and the imagined are rendered indistinguishable.
Since the play’s action is spun out from the main character’s ailing mind, the audience must make sense of the events, piecing together scenes that blur past and present, mixing up people and places, to get to the truth of the matter. Characters exit the stage, only to return played by another actor. Scenes are repeated, with some elements remaining verbatim and others wildly diverging. What is in one scene a terse exchange is in another version a venal assault. We are left to sort out which of these scenarios, if any, actually happened.
This intentionally confounding head-scratcher of a plot largely revolves around interactions with André’s daughter Anne, as she attempts to manage her father’s unraveling life while fulfilling her own. Her endgame is to move to London, so that she can be with her lover Pierre. To do this, she must have her father sufficiently squared away with adequate care. André, however, hinders her progress, vanquishing caretakers, forgoing medication, all while repeatedly barbing Anne and singing the praises of another, noticeably absent daughter named Elise.
The show’s success rests mainly on the shoulders of the actor playing André, a man belligerent in his refusal to cop to his compromised mental faculties, yet all-too-human in his agonizing plight. (Last year, Frank Langella walked away with a Tony Award for performance in the Broadway production).
On the Woolfe Street stage, Nat Jones triumphs, taking full command of the irascible André, blustering about, casting blame, hurling insults, and crumpling in abject submission. Though he’s accused of tormenting more than one caretaker, his usual victim is his daughter Anne (Emily Wilhoit), who must bear the brunt of his tactlessness and sharp tongue.
Through this unusually unreliable narrator, we establish the story: A woman disappointed in love gets a new chance for happiness, if only she can sort out her ailing father. Jones holds the room throughout the performance, alternating between a hurtful, blunt force object and an object of pity. For me, it brought to mind the first chapter of The Sound and the Fury, with the learning disabled Benjy Compson observing, in stream-of-consciousness, his beloved sister Caddy. Similarly, Anne is given no voice in the decline of her father, having to hold her comments in check due to her father’s condition.
On that note: don’t get caught up in trying to follow every single sequential step of the story in The Father. Rest assured, there is a structural blueprint and, above all, a poignant dramatic arc. The scenes will play out, and you will come to understand both André’s challenges in assembling his sense of reality and the inescapable reality that André has cast into the lives of those around him. That being said, I would suggest the work may benefit from advancing the story at more of a clip.
The show’s set, which first represents André’s flat in Paris, is an elegant wash of gray punctuated by alcoves and doorways containing hints of an elegant mind, such as leather books, modern art, a writing desk. When the action moves to Anne’s minimal home, these tableaux disappear, leaving an antiseptic box, dull gray matter without the fine stuff of the mind.
All in all, The Father is a brainteaser and a gut-wrencher in one riveting sitting. But the payoff is real, as you face down the fragility of the human experience — and how mind and body betray us as well as those we love. I saw more than one theatergoer leaving in tears. Don’t forget: Come bearing Kleenex. You’ll be relieved to have done so. You’ll be even more relieved that you remembered.