Experiencing life inside another’s head

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Michael Toscano

In The Father, now playing at Studio Theatre, Ted van Griethuysen gives a masterful performance as André, a proud patriarch who is starting to show signs of dementia. He is shown here with Caroline Dubberly, who plays his caretaker, Laura.
Photo by Teresa Wood

The Father begins abruptly, right in the middle of an intense conversation. One moment you’re in your own world, a theatergoer out for an evening of entertainment, just settled into your seat at Studio Theatre’s Metheney Theatre.

Boom! You’re in someone’s…no several peoples’… nightmare, even if it’s not immediately apparent that’s what it is. A distraught daughter is confronting her elderly father over his maladroit treatment of a home nurse. But it doesn’t seem all that bad at first. 

You see, André, played with preternatural skill and depth by Ted van Griethuysen, actually seems all there. That is, the pieces of André — his intelligence, wit and dominant personality — are all there. But the segments are somewhat scattered, like a jigsaw puzzle that’s been jostled.  

The Father is a five-year-old play by French writer Florian Zeller, translated with sensitivity for language and nuance by Christopher Hampton. It was first performed on Broadway one year ago. 

The play is an unsettling experience, in the sense that it stays with you after you leave the theater. But it’s one enrobed with dark humor and profoundly poignant. The Father is onstage at Studio Theatre through at least June 18, and you really should make the effort to experience it.

At 82, van Griethuysen, a longtime regular at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and, in recent years, an occasional presence at Studio Theatre, has lost none of his skill and power to immerse himself fully into a role and take you along with him. 

That noble voice, the leonine head. The power of his presence. He may be a lion in winter, but there’s plenty of power coiled up in this cat. 

A story we think we know

André, a Parisian engineer and a widower (we assume), is now reduced to living with his daughter Anne (Kate Eastwood Norris) and her partner Pierre (Manny Buckley). The role seems crafted to suit van Griethuysen — so familiar with playing larger-than-life characters, often imbued with tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.  

In those first moments of the play, André vehemently denies mistreating the nurse. He seems rational. But we gradually recognize his tics, the effort he is making to hold together the disintegrating facade of normalcy that is so integral to his picture of himself. 

So the story requires no set-up. We can be thrust right into the middle of it with no introduction because we know this story, don’t we? We’ve seen it before, right? Well, no. Actually we haven’t.

The story of people slowly losing themselves to dementia — whether from Alzheimer’s or from some other cause — has been oft-told in recent years, as the population ages. But not quite like this. The aspect by which we usually experience this situation is quite altered. 

This time, we see it entirely from the perspective of the person at the center. Sure, we can see the challenges faced by family members and caregivers, but this is essentially the view of the world, now a frightening and disjointed place, from the inside out — from André’s perspective.

Director David Muse has pushed his cast of six (including Daniel Harray, Erika Rose and Carolione Dubberly) to handle the straightforward, bold dialogue like tennis volleys. The language is declarative, nothing flowery, so they lob it back and forth.

Where are we?

Muse fully exploits startling scene transitions, blackouts signaled by sudden explosive noise. They are accompanied by lights framing the proscenium-like shape of the multi-dimensional and realistic Parisian apartment set designed by Debra Booth. 

The lights flash and pulse and throb in the blackness of the theater, sometimes as if they are trying to connect like failing synapses in a brain. When the scenic lights come back on (Keith Parham, designer), the world is altered yet again, forcing André to find his place over and over.

As André struggles to make sense of his life, the action becomes surreal. Who is who? Was a conversation or a memory real? Scenes where André stands helpless in a swirl of fragmented memories and thoughts, the actors in a tightly choreographed and silently chilling ballet around him, are disquieting and heartrending.

For perhaps the first time, we truly see the world as we have not experienced it before. It is André’s world — a jumbled, confusing, confounding landscape of chaos.

And yet.

André is still in there someplace. Ted van Griethuysen never lets us forget the man who used to be, now on the inside looking out. It is a compelling tour de force, alternately so subtle and so striking. 

Norris matches van Griethuysen, although in an entirely different way. She shows us the strain and exasperation of caring for a loved one who is not quite that loved one anymore. We see the careworn face, with mismatched smile and fearful eyes, experiencing the lash of an insult from her beloved father. We see the occasional amusement and the love and the pain and the worry. All in the face and the laughter that seems more an expression of hope than humor. 

There are elements of this play which are better experienced in the moment rather than in this review, so be prepared to pay attention.

And do not fear that this is dreary or depressing. It is neither of those things. Indeed, there are moments that are quite funny.  We get swept along for an hour and 22 minutes (without intermission) until we leave André, not quite as abruptly as we met him, but without denouement. 

Yes, we know where it’s all heading. Late in the play, André utters one of the saddest lines imaginable in this context: “I feel like I’m losing all my leaves.” Winter is coming, after all. Even lions and mighty trees cannot escape it.

If you go

“The Father” continues through at least June 18 at Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre, located at 1501 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 

Evening performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Weekend matinee performances are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Ticket range from $20 to $85, with a $5 discount for those 62+ and military personnel (except for Saturday evening performances). Thirty minutes before showtime, $30 tickets may be available except Saturday evenings. 

All performances are fully accessible for patrons with special needs, including an FM listening system. Call for a schedule of sign-interpreted performances. Accessible seats are available by reservation.

For tickets, call (202) 332-3300. (V/TTY: (202) 667-8436).  For more information, visit www.studiotheatre.org.