During its early scenes, a play makes a kind of pact with the audience: “Here is tonight’s theatrical world.” It could be cartoony absurd or Victorian Gingerbread Age ornate. But this is default mode, how things will remain. Watch the North Coast Rep’s The Father and the pact breaks down. Some scenes appear to repeat themselves. But new actors play the same characters with different names. What gives? The show isn’t playing fair. Are we in a parallel universe?
Marty Burnett’s appealing, robin’s egg blue set shifts almost invisibly. At one time it could have been a posh Parisian salon. Expensive paintings in elegant white frames decorate the walls. When the lights come on for each new scene, you may realize a painting, say, is gone. You probably can’t remember what it looked like, or even the color scheme. Either the set, or you, or both, have severe memory loss. So does Andre.
Like a king ruling his domain, he sits on a chair centerstage. The outside world pretty much coheres for him at first. But then the 80-year-old forgets a word or a memory. Probably just a “senior moment”, people of a certain age would say, as when you can’t remember a movie title, or when you find yourself in the kitchen and forget why you’re there.
But Andre’s gaps widen. He retrieves less and less. To prove his mind isn’t caving in, he fights to recall a trivial subject. But the subject recedes, leaving only shadows.
“If you only knew him,” says daughter Anne. “He had so much authority.” Anne says he was an engineer. Okay. But Andre can’t make up his mind: he says he was a tap dancer (and does a mediocre shuffle in his pajamas); says he worked in a circus; and once did conjuring tricks. He’s reached the point where he may deny the truth and believe a falsehood.
Andre has dementia. He’s certain nothing has changed; it’s just that sometimes the newly impish world refuses to obey. Even his watch comes and goes. Why isn’t it where he left it? Could people be taunting him? Or are they the ones suffering memory loss?
His care-giving daughter Anne may feel that way. Andre treats her like yesterday’s breakfast, and apparently always has (he idealizes his other daughter, Elise, who never appears on stage). Anne puts up with the abuse, or does she? Around the middle of the play, she strangles him, or was that just a dream?.
Arthur Miller originally wanted to give Death of a Salesman the title Inside of His Head, because we follow the inner-workings of Willy Loman so closely. The Father merits a similar title. The play’s herky-jerky, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t structure instills dementia in the audience. You could almost call the play Inside of Our Heads.
A striking feature of the play and North Coast Rep production: neither exploits the subject. No funhouse corridors, or ghoulish sounds and music. No devilish lighting effects or videos of shrinking synapses. Nothing detracts from watching a mind overthrown.
As played by James Sutorius, Andre succumbs in sad, unpredictable stages. Along the way we patch together his biography — or at least try to, since the clues may reside far from the facts.
He’s surprisingly funny. He jokes and quips with such swiftness you’d swear his mind’s still intact. His will remains strong. He will combat the decline. At times he resembles Don Quixote jousting with windmills, at others a solemn, desperate figure. But he’s no martyr. Sutorious reveals glimpses of the old authority — make that authoritarianism, since Andre expects to have things his way. He’s certainly a narcissist, which may be his personal tragedy. His whole world now refuses to obey.
Andre runs the entire zodiac of emotions. Sutorious honors them all: childlike, adamant, hurtful, clownish (from his circus days?), elated, brave, aching, terrified, and finally at a loss. But unlike, say, the “seven stages of grief,” these come in no specific order. Instead they leap out, at random, as if each is determined to upstage the others.
Sutorius never once resorts to histrionics or cheap appeals for sympathy. He’s simply Andre, “losing all my things.” His performance is reason enough to visit the box office at North Coast Rep. But the production, acutely directed by David Ellenstein, is an ensemble piece. The supporting cast — Richard Baird (as good cop, evil cop characters), Jacque Wilke (watch her eyes), Shana Wride, Robyn Cohen, and Matthew Salazar Thompson — do quality work.
The Father is never morbid. It’s human, especially for those who care for someone suffering from dementia.