For those of us who have ever had to face the mental deterioration of a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, Pasadena Playhouse’s newest import from Broadway, The Father, hits very close to home.
By Melanie Hooks
Alfred Molina plays the titular character (a father named André) in a small cast on that large stage, and without anyone saying it directly, we realize his reality is cracking wide open. Scene after scene showcases his daily life – in snippets rather than a joined narrative – with people he knows well – his daughter, his son-in-law, his nurse – appearing quite unrecognizable from moment to moment. Even if you’ve never seen the disease up close and personal, Tony and Olivier award-winning playwright Florian Zeller’s bombastic intellectual André, especially as portrayed by the ever sharp and vulnerable Molina, will crack your heart wide open.
On opening night, one patron nearby openly sobbed. It’s a play that has the potential to trigger those who have navigated these choppy waters. What’s so special about it – why the play has won virtually every award the theater world has to offer over the last two years – is the point of view. For us on the outside, trying to reason with someone who suddenly believes we are stealing their things, or are lying about who we are and what we’ve done with their actual family/friends/home, the conversations can feel like personal attacks. Zeller’s genius is showing us the world as it’s happening to a person trapped in the disease’s cycle – with their full awareness, humor and intelligence intact, simply surrounded by faces and places they can no longer trust. Many people compare this play to Harold Pinter, a founder of the Theater of the Absurd, because of the dissonant effect this inevitably creates.
What The Father does that many classic absurdist plays do not: it makes you care.
The always excellent director, Jessica Kubzanksy, also Artistic Director of Boston Court Pasadena, guides her cast to moments of both touching connection between daughter Anne (Sue Cremin) and father, as well as physical terror in the father/son-in-law relationship, brought to life impressively by two different actors inhabiting André’s garbled mind, Robert Mammana as Man (quiet, commanding) and Michael Manuel as Pierre (domineering, abusive), both welcome, familiar faces on stage in Pasadena and nationwide.
Sue Cremin as Anne inhabits a fairly thankless role, both onstage and in life – the caregiver. Playing sane and staying sane fold into each other in the script, and Cremin at times can seem a bit repetitive in her reactions. But the play isn’t at its strongest when it shows long sequences without André as our guide. Strangely, we the audience feel more grounded in his company than with those struggling to make sense of him. Kudos to Cremin and the entire company for wrangling with the meaning of these smaller episodes. But when the players are together, each clashing with André’s mind and its effect on their own realities, they crackle.
The physical staging of a mind with holes, ever changing but clinging to small familiarities, is no small challenge. In the Pasadena Playhouse’s production, scenic designer David Meyer and lighting designer Elizabeth Harper’s classically white and bright, tall ceilinged Parisian apartment brings a gorgeous elegance and refinement, coupled with costume designer Denitsa Bliznakova’s bespoke suit for André and chic city garb for all the iterations of daughter Anne. Compared to the dark study and clothing chosen by the Broadway designers, these beacons of light promise characters who have their lives together – cultured, owners of large spaces even in the middle of one of the planet’s most expensive cities. It’s a perfectly rich beginning to start stealing from – an effective and chilling choice from the creative team.
John Zalewski’s sound design signals each sharp scene transition. It is harsh, loud and unapologetic, much like André’s mind. Not particularly pleasant for audience members, but then that’s the point.
Supporting player Pia Shah holds her own in several challenging scenes with André as a potential nurse, no small feat for a young actor against such a veteran who’s able to let all his powers loose in such a no-holds-barred role, and Lisa Renee Pitts as Woman brings such tenderness and empathy to each of her appearances, you might find yourself counting the moments until her next entrance.
This production is here for only three weekends, through March 1, so don’t take too long to make up your own mind to go see it. It’s one you’ll be talking about long after the curtain falls.
• Written by Florian Zeller
• Translated by Christopher Hampton
• Directed by Jessica Kubzansky
• Cast: Alfred Molina, Sue Cremin, Michael Manuel, Pia Shah, Robert Mammana, and Lisa Renee Pitts.
39 S El Molino Ave, Pasadena, CA 91101
• Now through Sunday, March 1
• Tickets start at $25 (some discount tickets available at Goldstar.com)
• Purchase tickets here.
> The Playhouse will host a Conversation with Dr. Paul Stephen Aisen, a leading figure in Alzheimer’s Disease research, about the issues raised by the play in the context of the neuroscience of dementia and research efforts to develop an effective treatment. Feb. 22, 2020 3:30 pm Free, no ticket required. > There will also be an Open Captioned performance of The Father. Feb. 23, 2020 2:00 pm.
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