My heart soars when I see a show that feels important. Word of mouth is the best marketing any show can get and sometimes a show leaves me not just feeling like I want to tell people about it, but rather to demand they see it due to its power. The Father, a play originally written by young French novelist-turned-playwright Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton, is a show with so much weight and significance that the night I went, every single audience member remained in their seats for the talkback afterward. One gentleman even revealed that he had been both nights that opening weekend because, after the first night, he was left needing to see the story told again. The show was originally performed in Paris in 2012 and won the Molière Awards for Best Play in 2014. It has since been adapted for stages in England, New York, Australia and Singapore, receiving critical acclaim each time.
The stunning script and impressive direction by Ryan Sekac weaves through the emotional experience of a man diagnosed with dementia. Players come in and out of his storyline and the audience starts to question what is real and what they can recall as though in the mind of the father. Thanks to very clear staging one can suddenly understand first hand what it must be like to live with this harrowing disease. Scenes repeat and are rewritten, the timeline is unstable, yet we are always right there, gripped by the moment at hand. Even the set pieces are used to further a visual understanding of the emotions involved. Stage manager Reed Reed enters and quietly moves items, slowly and subtly taking the audience outside the setting they first sat down in and leaving them in a startling and unfamiliar space.
In the title role, Terry Simpson plays the father artfully; he is a protagonist who requires much heart and equal frustration. He continually tries to place where he is and what is happening around him. It is a demanding undertaking for an actor, yet Simpson is exactly on point and inspires so much love toward a father who is oftentimes erratic, moody, exasperating and even scary. The places that he allows us to follow him in this performance are vulnerable and heartbreaking. Simpson plays with finesse, care and command the man and the shell of the man who is left after the disease has taken over many of his original personal characteristics.
Tammy Brown plays the daughter Anne, who jockeys for compassion opposite her father, and who is arguably the opposing lead in the show. Oftentimes this position requires Brown to play the authority over her ill parent and she handles it with a grounded calm that reads as both strong and fragile in the moments needed. The exasperation with her difficult situation comes across with so much tenderness in Brown’s performance that I felt I was with her every time a new and increasingly harrowing choice was placed before her for her dad’s care.
Other roles in the show are shifting, with one character sometimes being interpreted by multiple actors. Maggie Cady plays “woman” and every persona she takes on, large or small, she draws the focus to her compassionate depictions. She is particularly skillful at connecting with the other actors on stage and every relationship she creates is beautiful. Ricco Lanni, playing the part of Pierre, the son-in-law, is powerful and dark as he has to manage being both compassionate to his wife and father-in-law’s situation and also show the toll it can all take on a family unit. Lanni is straightforward and authoritative in his portrayal and, even at the height of the drama, he allows space for the audience to sympathize with his character’s difficult position in the household. Rounding out the cast is Laura Kennedy and Max Leatham as Laura and “man.” Kennedy is particularly charming and bold in her impressive scenes as a nurse struggling to aid the stricken father.
The story isn’t told from one viewpoint and, by the end, there is sympathy and understanding of what the diagnosed, the caregivers and other family members go through. I felt I could truly place myself in the shoes of every person represented in the show and it left me altered. I was so relieved that there was a talkback, which they have wisely scheduled for after every performance. Audience members, one by one, opened up about personal struggles with Alzheimer’s or dementia in their families and discussions about care, trauma and understanding were opened up. A representative from the Alzheimer’s Association of RI was there and spoke of how important it is for dialogues about these diseases to become more frequent. She said that oftentimes funding for research and care directly correlate to public awareness. I was most struck by the fact that it seemed that every person in the audience had experience in their own lives. There were tears and incredibly personal things shared, but there was a magic in the connections made that night thanks to this show. I can understand someone going through these struggles directly, not wanting to delve into the subject on an evening at the theater, but I would urge everyone to go, even though it is heavy material. This production is handled with such care and intention that I left feeling connected, supported, enlightened and hopeful. I have always known Contemporary Theatre Company as one of the most open and positive groups in the state and their communications director (and aforementioned actor in this show) Maggie Cady, said of their mission in the talkback, “We are about bringing the community together and starting conversations.” This show expertly accomplishes that goal and then some.
The Father is showing in the outside garden patio at Contemporary Theater Company September 28-29, October 4-5, at 7pm and September 30 at 2pm. Performances will be moved inside in case of rain.