I lost my father to Multiple Sclerosis; the disease robbing him of his agility and ability to speak. That was a sobering reality for a young teen, but I left the Pasadena Playhouse’s production of the award-winning “The Father” almost grateful that my father hadn’t been robbed of reality by dementia. This 90-minute play is that harrowing, pushing the audience to confront a fate that some will meet and others will come to know through acquaintances.
The play in its original French, “Le Père” premiered in Paris in 2012 with Robert Hirsch as the father, André, and Isabelle Gélinas as his daughter Anne. Hirsch earned a Molière Award for Best Actor in a Private Theater and Gélinas a Best Actress with the play itself winning Best Play. The translation by Academy Award-winning Christopher Hampton (Best Adapted Screenplay for the 1988 film “Dangerous Liaisons”) garnered an Olivier nomination for the West End production with the lead, Kenneth Cranham, winning Best Actor in 2016. The same year, the Broadway production earned a Tony nomination for Best Play and Frank Langella won a Tony for Best Actor.
As André at the Pasadena Playhouse’s well-appointed production (scenic design by David Meyer), Alfred Molina begins as a proud man, defending the recent release of his already departed assistant to his daughter Anne (Sue Cremin). Dressed in a brown tweed jacket, with a brick red vest and blue shirt and beige pants (costume design by Denitsa Bliznakova), he’s somewhat indignant. When Anne asks him, “So what happened,” he denies everything, saying, “Nothing.” Anne is increasingly frustrated because this isn’t the first person who has left her father’s service. “You have to accept the idea that you need someone,” she replies.
André explains he had no choice; the woman was stealing from him. He set a trap and she stole his watch, but the watch wasn’t stolen. This initial scene has the feel and pacing of a light comedy under the skillful hand of director Jessica Kubzansky, yet don’t let this lull you into a happy zone. The ride had just begun and there will be more than a few sharp turns and stomach churning drops. Scenes end in uncomfortable and disorienting blackouts (lighting design by Elizabeth Harper) and we come back to what may be a different reality. We might not be in André’s apartment. We might be in Anne’s apartment or Anne might be leaving Paris for London to be with her new love. Or she may be married to Pierre (Michael Manuel).
Kubzansky compares this play to a journey through a labyrinth or getting lost in a fun house. In the director’s notes, she writes, “All we can do, all of us, is try not to get lost along the way, and hope that if we come out the other side, we have managed to be good human beings during ever more challenging circumstances, and that we have told our truth with love.” You can feel the love and perhaps you’ll remember love as well. I commented to my friend how my late aunt resisted being moved to a senior home. She died in her sleep, still at home, after spending every day stubbornly walking the block with her walker and talking to a visiting hummingbird. Perhaps this play will help you live better or recall fondly someone who has passed away after struggling with dementia or just plain senior moments. My companion also worried a bit about growing forgetfulness. Age will humble all of us who survive to it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t got out fighting.
“The Father” is performed without intermission and continues until 1 March 2020 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena. Tickets begin at $25. For more info visit pasadenaplayhouse.org or call (626) 356-7529.