If a tree loses its leaves, is it still the same tree? What if it’s a person losing all their memories—or even their ability to remember?
In The Father, French playwright Florian Zeller follows one family’s story as the patriarch slowly succumbs to dementia. Grown daughter Anne (Clare Jaget) bears the brunt of the caretaking burden: finding new home help after her father Andre (Gary Lunn) scares them off; agonizing over when to put him in a home; enduring his temper and suspicions.
But in this story, the helpers are all supporting characters. The play belongs to the title character. In a feat of theatrical magic, the play leads the audience to identify with a man who is losing his mind.
Director Darren Weller says this type of story is best told in the theater. “The play is written through the eyes of a man with dementia, so we’re just as confounded as he is,” Weller says. “It forces [the audience] to empathize with the man whose memory is unreliable. Then it asks the question that maybe maybe we’re all kind of unreliable with memories.”
The play is presented in partnership with the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. There will be a special event for guests of the Lou Ruvo Center on April 13. And each matinee will include post-performance talk backs with a representative of the Ruvo Center.
In a 2014 review, The Guardian, described the play as “slippery but hugely rewarding.” That same year, it won France’s prestigious Moliere award. Translated into English by Christopher Hampton, the set and characters shift in ways that puts the audience and Andre off balance. Every so often, a different actor will play a familiar role, enabling the audience to realize what it’d be like to not recognize a loved one. Conversations swirl around the father—once a sharp, imposing man—now that he and the audience are a step behind.
With each blackout, the set loses a piece or two. At first it feels like nothing—a lost lamp or two doesn’t make much of a different in a rich life full of art, books and mementos. But as time marches on, less and less is left of Andre the person. “Technically, it’s tough,” Weller says. Without access to expensive hydraulic lifts and set dressings, his team had to create design solutions that would allow for the set to slowly drain away without making the blackouts last forever. The result is a sort of theatrical IKEA, with fireplaces sliding away and bookcases disappearing behind sliding compartments.
But the story doesn't center around gee-whiz set dressings. “It’s also about just tapping into the actors, trying to trace where the truth of the story lies,” Weller says. “There’s more than one truth in the play at any given moment.”
THE FATHER Through April 15; dates and showtimes vary; $15-$25. Art Square Theatre, 725-222-9661.