By Pat Launer
You get a growing sense of disorientation as you watch “The Father,” the award-winning drama at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
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There’s a fraught father-daughter relationship, and there are a couple of men and women who cycle in and out of their sphere. But initially, it’s hard to determine who’s who, or what the timeframe is relative to the first scene.
Are we in André’s flat in Paris? Or perhaps his daughter Anne’s in London? Which one of those men is her husband, or boyfriend, or ex?
Gradually, as we watch André become increasingly confused, we realize that we’re seeing the world — and his frightening, perplexing place in it — through his eyes.
No diagnosis is mentioned, but clearly he has some sort of dementia, and he’s unaware or in total denial about it — blaming his frequent losses on theft by caregivers, his misunderstandings on people trying to trick him.
André can be charming and witty, but he’s also a confabulator (saying that he used to be a tap-dancer, or a circus performer, when in fact, he was an engineer), and prone to anger outbursts, due to disinhibition and frustration. His mind is a disturbing place to spend 100 minutes of your time.
But the play, written by French novelist/playwright Florian Zeller, and translated wonderfully by acclaimed translator/playwright Christopher Hampton, won France’s 2014 Molière Award for Best Play, and the 2015 Olivier Award for Best Play in London. When it ran on Broadway in 2016, it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play, and earned a second Best Actor Tony for Frank Langella in the title role.
The tragic drama is unequivocally provocative and unsettling. Anyone who has dealt with Alzheimer’s or any other dementia will recognize many of the behaviors — and the family frustrations. As the population ages, those who haven’t had these experiences yet, will.
Fortunately for us, North Coast Repertory Theatre has snagged the West coast premiere of “The Father,” and director David Ellenstein has done a marvelous job of bringing it to light, keeping it moving at a clip and engaging us with alternating laughter and distress.
The best dramas, and works of art, are often tough to take. The subject matter shouldn’t turn you away. Curiosity, the desire to see an excellent production of a highly awarded play, and exposure to challenging art, should attract theaterlovers, not deter them.
Ellenstein has cast a superb ensemble, helmed by the magnificent James Sutorius (Los Angeles-based, but seen here a number of times at The Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse). He captures an expansive range of emotions, and there isn’t a false note in his performance, which is chillingly real.
As his faithful but put-upon daughter, LA-based Robyn Cohen is also excellent, enduring disparagement (André repeatedly tells her that her sister was his favorite) and endless frustration.
The rest of the roles are considerably smaller, and embodied by some of San Diego’s finest, truly an embarrassment of riches: Richard Baird, Shana Wride, Jacque Wilke and Matthew Salazar-Thompson. All are convincing, but some of the secondary characters are better defined than others.
The scenic design (Marty Burnett), in Wedgwood blue and white, is quite beautiful. The lighting (Matt Novotny), sound (Melane Chen Cole) and costumes (Eliza Benzoni) serve the production well.
It may not be a comfortable or comforting evening of theater, but it’s a deep, powerful, thought-provoking and rewarding one.
- “The Father” runs through June 24 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach
- Performances are Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m. and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. There is a talkback with cast and director on June 8.
- Running Time: 100 min.
- Tickets ($49-$53, with $20 Rush tickets) are at 858-481-1055 or northcoastrep.org
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.
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