One of the most powerful experiences theater can impart to audiences is one of empathy. Florian Zeller’s play The Father accomplishes this in a way that a slew of other plays about older people in the grip Alzheimer’s or dementia cannot. The current Strollers Theatre production, onstage at the Bartell through March 30, illustrates the main character’s final years, primarily through his own altered perspective. Instead of exclusively looking in from the outside at an elderly man who’s lost his faculties, through Andre (a remarkable Carl Cawthorne) the audience also sees a world that doesn’t make any sense. There are puzzling time lapses, new people showing up in each scene claiming to be relatives or caregivers, and contradictory information presented as facts. It’s as if the main character is the only sane person in an increasingly absurd world that refuses to snap back to normal.
In interviews, playwright Florian Zeller says he wrote The Father, leaning heavily on childhood memories of his own grandmother descending into dementia. And indeed, anyone who has personal experience with this disease will recognize some of the telltale signs dramatized in the play. In addition to Andre’s confusion there’s the typical paranoia about strangers and the safety of his possessions. Our main character is always losing his watch. After accusing a caregiver of stealing it, he squirels it away in a secret hiding place in the kitchen, not that this action really solves the problem. Andre also suffers from radical mood swings, sometimes turning violent, and his behavior grows increasingly childlike. His mind skips around in time so conversations from decades previous seem recent.
As the center of this story, Carl Cawthorne does an admirable job of trying to square Andre’s previous experience with the bizarre chain of events we see in the play. Dressed in blue pajamas and wearing a pleasant smile, he begins the play as both likable and believable. And since the audience can’t trust the rest of the cast, who appear and reappear as different characters offering wildly different accounts of recent events, he is the narrator we cling to.
But as disorienting as it is to see the world through Andre’s eyes, it’s equally jarring when the audience’s point of view changes. In scenes where Andre isn’t present, viewers get a different truth. And even when he is present, such as a scene when his daughter Anne (Julie Logue) introduces Andre to a new caregiver (Caroline Peterson), the audience can clearly see the stress and pain Anne feels, both watching the decline of her father and hearing him disparage her, as if he’d lost a crucial social filter. So Andre and the viewer share in a lot of the confusion, but as it gets worse for him, the story comes into greater focus for us.
This is a nifty dramatic device, and the shifting narrative draws comparisons to absurdist writers like Pinter and Ionesco. Others have called the play a taut thriller, keeping audiences on edge as they try to solve the mystery of what’s really happening. But this production, directed by Sadie Yi is neither really absurd nor suspenseful. Because of its plodding pace and uneven cast, the story limps along from scene to scene. When the audience understands the conceit, The Father feels like a documentary of Andre’s slow and inevitable decline. After all, when the main character starts the show with Alzheimer’s, there’s only one direction things are going to go, and in this case the audience reaches the story’s inevitable conclusion long before the characters do.
That said, the production does contain some fresh design choices. Set designer Erin Baal makes excellent use of the shoe-box-y Evjue Stage by putting the audience on all four sides around an off-center square. Though the locations change several times over the course of the story, its main character remains in the same, identical square room, where furniture seems to appear and disappear on a whim. The effect boxes Andre into a literal prison of his own mind.
The patterns of linoleum, wood and tile on the floor run together like fractured puzzle pieces and a portrait of the Eiffel Tower above the fireplace is jaggedly refracted in two halves that don’t quite align, also depicting a mind that’s trying to force disparate pictures together, unsuccessfully. The fact that the color drains out of the set scene by scene is another telling detail that tracks with Andre’s mental state.
Additional kudos goes to sound designer John Gustafson for immediately making the audience uneasy in their environment. Pre-show music consists of a scratchy old record playing an innocuous melody and then stopping and abruptly starting over -- again and again and again. The frustration of knowing only the beginning of the song and never being able to progress past a certain point is a visceral illustration of Andre’s suddenly unreliable brain.