What goes on in the mind of someone with dementia? Way beyond the minor annoyance felt when we can’t find our car keys, it’s a world where conversations are recycled in an endless loop, time becomes meaningless and complete strangers purport to be family members leading to angst, anger and fear.
Thanks to the masterful writing of French playwright Florian Zeller we come to know this, not as detached audience members but by being confronted with a series of disorienting twists, turns and disconnects in the telling of the powerful “The Father,” receiving an impressive West Coast Premiere at the North Coast Rep.
Actor James Sutorius imbues the central character, André, with gravitas and pride that in the course of the 90-minute play is steadily eroded like a sandcastle undermined by the relentless incoming tide.
His daughter Anne (Robyn Cohen) is at her wit’s end with her father’s decline and tormented by her desire to take care of him but also to live a life of her own in London. Her love interest Pierre (Matthew Salazar-Thompson) is less sympathetic and even may be verbally and physically abusing André. That is, unless he is imagining it.
But wait. In walks a Woman (Shana Wride) who says she’s Anne. Of course, she’s not, but as she relays details of André’s life suddenly the audience starts disbelieving its own eyes. Ditto as The Man (Richard Baird) takes a turn as Pierre.
A brief respite from the gloom comes with the arrival of an engaging caregiver named Laura (Jacque Wilke). Suddenly, André turns on the charm until he suddenly becomes convinced that Laura, like the parade of caregivers before her, is playing tricks on him and has sticky fingers for his prize wristwatch.
Keeping this many discordant moving parts from becoming derailed is the steady guidance of director David Ellenstein.
The story takes place in an elegant Paris apartment (courtesy of set designer Marty Burnett) with cornflower-blue walls and ornate white molding that gives the space the look of Wedgwood Jasperware. But the set isn’t passive as scene by scene the room is transformed apace with André’s decline: knickknacks start to rearrange themselves, furnishings move at will, artwork disappears until, with the sliding in place of opaque screens, the room becomes a chilling clinical setting.
Light designer Matt Novotny at times creates a subtle effect with the optics that imparts a feeling of déjà vu in keeping with wavering recollections and gives the term “blackout” new meaning as an endpoint to every scene. Effects are underscored and amplified by sound designer Melanie Chen Cole.
Costume designs by Elisa Benzoni moves the story along as André first appears as a dapper dresser in a suit and latter can’t be bothered to change out of his wrinkled pajamas.
“If you only knew him,” Anne says of the man her father once was. “He had so much authority.”
“The Father” is a theatrical experience and an intellectual exercise that will remain with you long after the final blackout.
By Lynne Friedmann