Stage Door Review 2019

The Father

Feb 14, 2019

✭✭✭✭✭

by Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Ted Dykstra

Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto

February 13-March 3, 2019

André: “I’m losing all my leaves”

Coal Mine Theatre has given the Toronto premiere of Florian Zeller’s The Father a tight, precise production that captures both the simplicity and mystery of the play. French author Zeller’s play had its world premiere in Paris in 2012, won the Molière Award in 2014 for Best Play and has since been produced around the world with award-winning runs in London and New York. One reason for this success is Zeller’s spare, Pinteresque style that can suggest both comedy and tragedy at the same time. The other is that Zeller does not let us sit back to watch a play about dementia but rather forces us to experience its mental dislocations ourselves.

The action begins with a confrontation between Anne (Patricia Fagan), a woman in her thirties, and her father André (Eric Peterson), a man in his eighties, who is suffering from Alzheimers. Anne is disturbed because the latest in a series of caregivers she has hired to look after André has quit because André treats them so badly. Anne is especially concerned about finding a caregiver who will stay on to care for André in his apartment because she plans to marry Antoine, the man she loves, and move to London where he works. André is extremely disturbed by this news because he thinks that Anne is abandoning him.

Up to this point the play seems like a funny, well-written play about a problem thirty- and forty-year-olds increasing face when they find they have to function as parents to their aging parents. Early on, however, Zeller throws us and André for a loop. Pierre (Paul Fauteux) comes in to talk with André in a very uncongenial way and claims that he is Anne’s husband and that André is living in Pierre and Anne’s apartment. Then Anne (now Michelle Monteith) appears and confirms that André is no longer living in his own apartment. She also claims that she never lived in London. André us upset with this news because not only does he not understand this contradiction of what he thought he knew but he is unsure of where he is and, worse, he doesn’t recognize either Pierre or Anne.

Zeller’s strategy is to put us as much on edge as he has put André. From this first disjunctive scene with Pierre and Anne onwards, we are constantly on our guard as we look for clues as to what André’s real situation is. We feel some relief with the more explanatory and chronological scenes that follow. We find that five years have passed since the initial scene between Anne and André. Anne has divorced Antoine and has moved back to Paris to live with Pierre (now Beau Dixon). André has moved into Anne and Pierre’s apartment as a temporary measure which they think may become permanent. Anne has hired a new caregiver Laura (Oyin Oladejo), who André seems to like and flirts with. The one unpleasant thing is that André repeatedly says how much Laura reminds him of Élise, Anne’s younger sister, who was his favourite of the two since he never liked Anne.

The trouble is that Pierre feels Anne is avoiding the obvious solution for André of putting him in a nursing home. They argue over this when André is absent but sometimes we’re shown that André overhears them. We know he overhears Anne’s finally agreeing to Pierre’s idea. After this follows a scene in which Fauteux again plays Pierre and Monteith plays Laura.

By the end of the play André’s world has collapsed around him. At the same time we have to reassess the nature of everything we have seen after having grasped at straws of continuity, as has André, to help us stay mentally afloat in a sea of conflicting explanations.

Nicholas Campbell was to have played André but had to withdraw due to illness. Replacing him is Eric Peterson, who appeared in the Canadian premiere of The Father staged by Theatre Aquarius in the fall of last year. Peterson gives what must be the most detailed portrait of a man suffering increasing dementia ever seen on a Toronto stage. Moments of lucidity are intermingled with moments of confusion. When lucid again, André tries to joke or deny that any confusion occurred. 

Objects like his watch which keeps going missing have an exaggerated meaning for André and a symbolic value in the play. Most upsetting of all, because Peterson plays it so well, is André's emotional lability. Anger, tenderness, happiness, sadness can succeed each other without transition since his dementia increasingly causes André to be unable to censor his thoughts and emotions. It is a keenly observed, ultimately heart-breaking performance.

Patricia Fagan gives one of her best ever performances as Anne. Throughout the play she shows us how Anne is constantly struggling with frustration, embarrassment, anger and love in trying to cope with André’s behaviour. André’s unstinting praise of Élise and deprecation of Anne is accepted with mingled pity and humiliation. Fagan fully conveys the tumult of emotions that children experience when their parents’ own behaviour becomes childish.

Beau Dixon gives a strong performance in his few scenes as Pierre. Even when Pierre is silently reading the newspaper, Dixon subtly reveals that Pierre is both irritated and attempting unsuccessfully to suppress his irritation. Oyin Oladejo radiates warmth and security as Laura and it is no wonder that André immediately takes to the caregiver. Yet, Oladejo shows that even when Laura seems to be playfully interacting with André she is still professionally assessing his needs.

To discuss Paul Fauteux and Michelle Monteith too much would risk giving away one of the mysteries around which Zeller’s play is constructed. Suffice it to say, that both are exemplary in their roles and play them with such earnestness that their performances only heighten the mystery that surrounds them.

Anna Treusch has designed an exceedingly clever stage considering how small the space is at the Coal Mine Theatre. The set is made up of two walls creating a corner pointing away from the audience fitted with mouldings that recall 19th-century imitations of the grandeur of the 17th century palaces. The walls, however, are made of a translucent fabric so that Bonnie Beecher’s subtle lighting can illumine a person standing behind the wall either to signal that someone is overhearing what is said on stage or to create an an atmosphere of unreality.

For all of The Father’s genuine humour, such as André’s attempt to impress Laura by claiming he was once a tap-dancer, there is a growing sense of unease that director Ted Dykstra perfectly controls until it finally bursts forth at the very end. Zeller has created a play where we both observe and experience the effects of dementia. By forcing us to experience the confusions that André experiences he endows the audience with a greater understanding of André’s condition. He also endows the audience with a greater understanding of the power of theatre when it establishes a perceived naturalism only to undermine it. For its fine performances and for the chance to encounter an exciting new voice in drama, The Father is a play no one should miss. It underscores the Coal Mine Theatre’s reputation as one of the most consistently exciting theatre companies in Toronto.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Eric Peterson as André and Patricia Fagan as Anne; Eric Peterson as André and Oyin Oladejo as Laura. © 2019 Kristina Ruddick.

For tickets, visit www.coalminetheatre.com.