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Dorothy Chansky

"The Father" at Padadena Playhouse

Alfred Molina as André in "The Father" at Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Jenny Graham

Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. el Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101
Feb. 11- Mar. 1, 2020
Box office 626-356-PLAY, www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
Reviewed by Dorothy Chansky

When Florian Zeller’s "The Father" opened in New York in 2016, one reviewer wrote “given the demographic of most Broadway playgoers, there should be a nurse stationed in the lobby to revive the more sensitive patrons in the audience.” "The Father" depicts André, a feisty, independent man somewhere on the far side of sixty who has a bit of a mean streak and who travels a journey mandated and mapped by dementia. Starting out in his nicely appointed apartment, he appears in the play’s final scene in the austere room of a nursing home crying for his mother while cradled in the arms of a nurse. Director Jessica Kubznasky’s production had its fair share of Pasadena audience members gasping and, in a few cases, weeping before the curtain call.

"The Father" is part of a crop of recent plays treating dementia. The list includes "Our Mother’s Brief Affair,"" The Humans," "Marjorie Prime," "Singing Beach," "The Waverly Gallery" and "Dot," among others. What makes ""The Father"" unique is that it depicts the progress of cognitive loss both from the outside and from the inside. André, played by the protean Alfred Molina, is a handful for his adult daughter, Anne (Sue Cremin), and an outright thorn in the side of her boyfriend, Pierre (Michael Manuel). But the world is no easy place for André either, and Zeller scripts his character’s confusion in part by stipulating that Anne, Pierre, and a young caregiver be played from time to time by other performers than the ones with whom we first identify them, these others named in the program simply Man and Woman (Robert Mammana and Lisa Renée Pitts). I caught the occasional audience murmur when the “wrong” person appeared in place of the one we had come to know. If this is how the world looks to someone grappling with cognitive decline, then the familiar can become terrifying. Who is that woman? Where did that man disappear to? He was here two minutes ago. What are you doing in my living room?

Molina’s consistently compelling performance is marked by physical shifts that complement André’s scripted confusion. The comfortably well-off retiree of the opening scene slides almost imperceptibly from doing crossword puzzles and clowning around with faux tap dance moves to perambulating by means of a slow shuffle and finding himself unable to control the tremor in his right hand. In Denitsa Bliznakova’s sure-handed costuming, the André we first meet is dressed in an almost professorial tweed-and-sweater-vest outfit; he gradually begins living in his pajamas before arriving at the nursing home in a huge overcoat that seems ill-suited either to his body or to the season. The garment suggests that even the man’s own clothes have become strange; they fit but they aren’t quite right.

John Zalewski’s sound design offers jangling dissonance between scenes. Also during these interstices in the dark, books disappear from a bookcase, chairs make their exits, and finally but a single sofa is left where once were five or six other pieces. Losing it, indeed.

For better or worse, it is difficult to overcome reading this play as a fairly straightforward decline narrative. The paid caregivers—a girl named Laura (Pia Shah) and the nurse of the final scene (also played by Shah)—are kind and courteous, but Zeller has no interest in portraying dementia as what one activist calls “a disability with abilities,” something that might demand of its caregiver characters more creative interaction than mere custodial concern and generic comforting regarding their charges. André proves himself rather a poet of the soul when he says in the final moments of the play that he feels he is losing all his leaves, attempting to explain his state of being in shorthand, invoking “the branches! And the wind…. I don’t understand what’s happening any more.” If O. Henry can pen a life saved by an artist who paints a single leaf on an exterior wall to thwart the determination of a young woman to die when the final leaf falls from the tree outside her window, why should we ignore André’s intuition and simply sniffle over his admittedly scrambled yet not absent cognition? When Emily Dickinson urges “Tell all the truth but tell it slant/Success in circuit lies,” could this be a reminder that the linearity we call realism is hardly the only truth there is?

Sue Cremin is acceptably sympathetic as the daughter who simply cannot cope with keeping her father at home, although her decision to put him in a facility is heavily influenced by the boyfriend with whom she decamps to London and who, she admits, frightens her. Michael Manuel’s Pierre is a compelling blend of sexiness and menace. When he is replaced by Robert Mammana (The Man) in a scene that begins with a rude question asked by Pierre and is then repeated with the same question, now asked by Man-as-Pierre escalating into a series of hard slaps and pushes, we see what André feels about Pierre. Whether or not the physical assault “really happens,” it is an objective correlative for André’s intuition. “I don’t care for him, that fellow,” he tells his daughter, who shoos this aside and asserts that Pierre is not a “fellow,” but the man she loves. Perhaps André, cognitively declining or no, gets something that we don’t. But that would be a different play. This one satisfies as an inside/outside-in-a-world-where-money-isn’t-a-problem look at the effects of dementia on a single family unit.

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