Perspective is crucial to the understanding of both life and theater, and in the Pasadena Playhouse production of The Father, which opened this week, an intentionally disorienting point-of-view offers a dramatic and moving look at late-stage dementia. Written by Florian Zeller, the play premiered in 2014 and many consider it one of the most acclaimed of the recently concluded decade. A new film adaptation directed by Zeller and starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman recently premiered at Sundance, but Los Angeles audiences need look no further than the performance Alfred Molina is currently giving in the titular role.
André (Molina) lives in Paris. When you first meet him, he seems poised, intelligent, and witty. He is, in fact, all of these things, but he is also rapidly losing his grip on reality due to an unspecified and advanced form of dementia. He struggles to recognize those closest to him, forgets where he lives, and can never find his watch. His disease has reached the point where he requires professional care, although his daughter, Anne (Sue Cremlin) is determined to avoid moving him to an institution for as long as possible, despite the severe effects his condition is having on her own wellbeing and relationships.
Directed here by Jessica Kubzansky, the remarkable thing about this story is that it is told largely from André’s perspective. The set (David Meyer) subtly evolves throughout the 90 minutes, with more and more furniture disappearing until the room is practically stripped bare, culminating in a sobering reveal. Most notably, the supporting actors play the various roles interchangeably. When we first meet Anne, she is played by Cremlin, but in another scene, Lisa Reneé Pitts seamlessly takes over. Similarly, André is frequently confused over the state of Anne’s love life. From piecing together the various scenes, it seems she was once married to a man named Antoine but is now dating Pierre (Michael Manuel). Manuel and Robert Mammana take turns appearing in these roles. Pia Shah rounds out the cast as Laura, an in-home aide Anne hires to help her dad.
For the most part, there are enough clues to piece together a probable version of actual events, but the production definitely leaves you wondering on a few occasions just how unreliable of a narrator André tragically is. One charged encounter with Anne’s boyfriend in particular shifts the tone of the piece so abruptly that one cannot help but wonder if André’s ailing brain may have manifested it entirely. The play could do without a couple brief monologues delivered directly to the audience by the secondary characters. The strength of the production lies in its unique point of view, and scenes not involving André break that perspective and cause the pacing to falter.
Molina gives a truly heartbreaking performance. While the audience only gets to meet André after he has lost full control of his mental faculties, glimpses of the vibrant man he still is underneath are nearly torturous to watch. Determined to impress Laura, who reminds him of his often-mentioned but never seen other daughter, he claims he was once a tap dancer, even demonstrating a few charmingly unimpressive steps. As the play progresses and André attempts to come to grips with necessary changes in his lifestyle, it is devastating to watch. Cremin effectively portrays the tragic impact this disease has on loved ones, struggling to keep it together as her own father sometimes fails to recognize her, all while clinging to hope that the situation has not regressed beyond repair.
The concept of seeing the world through the eyes of someone with late-stage dementia is frightening and deeply sad, and the visceral approach this production takes is truly startling. Yes, it is off-putting to watch scenes that are sometimes out of order or repeated with only small differences, but this forced uncomfortability puts the audience in André’s shoes, whether they like it or not. Any sense of unease felt as a spectator pales in comparison to the everyday reality of someone battling this disease. Despite the infusion of smart, dry humor throughout by Zeller and translator Christopher Hampton, the overall mood is overwhelmingly somber. Thanks to smart direction and Molina’s affecting lead performance, this play will surely stick with audiences long after leaving the theater, even as memories begin to fade.
The Father runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through March 1st. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.