Playwright Florian Zeller seems obsessed with the way time affects consciousness. He constructs his plays like mazes with false paths and dead ends. In “The Father,” we’re asked to conjecture what part of the story represents current reality and what part is the past or fantasy filtered through dementia. In “The Mother,” the audience wonders whether his protagonist is, in fact, having a romantic/sexual relationship with her son or a lover and what part of dramatization is a product of her unspooling imagination.
Andre (Jonathan Pryce) stands looking out a kitchen window in his French country house. It’s the morning after a storm. A wonderful Set by Anthony Ward offers gracious proportions, fine architectural details and good, but mismatched furniture. Daughter Anne (Amanda Drew) is down for the weekend, asked by her father’s editor to go through his writing and recently discovered diaries with an eye towards publication. (All three Florian Zeller plays offer an Anne and an Andre.)
When he finally, if partially, breaks from a fugue state, Anne tells Andre he can’t possibly continue to live alone in the house. His response is a repeated, robotic demand for preferred breakfast. The old man’s hands exhibit (completely believable) tremor, his mind fades in and out of then and now, sometimes calm at others in high temper.
As Andre retreats into shadow, his wife, Madeleine (Eileen Atkins) enters. (Subtle light shifts by Hugh Vanstone, who also engineers wonderful shadow, indicate to whose consciousness we’re privy.) “Would he really have wanted someone rummaging around in his papers?” she rhetorically asks. Both she and Anne refer to Andre in past tense. There’s conversation about the writer’s picking mushrooms to clear his head for work. Clues abound.
Now it’s Andre’s turn. He tells the story of a local man disappearing from his home and, after some time, assumed deceased. Later, he sees the man in Paris with another woman and confronts him. “You think people are dead, then it’s not the case.”
Anne brings up the need for a senior residence. Her father is adamant about not giving up the house, but can’t even make himself a meal. Madeleine had promised not to die before her husband. “Who will take care of the vegetable garden?” his daughter asks, presuming her mother is no longer there to do so.
Madeleine enters with groceries. It’s time for lunch. All three interact…eventually with the addition of Anne’s sister, Elise (Lisa O’Hare.) Like Elise’s lover, Paul (James Hillier), the young woman is immaterial, perhaps present to make framework more casually domestic, perhaps to diffuse intensity.
One more character is added to the puzzle. “The Woman” (Lucy Cohu), encountered by Madeleine in the market, says she’s an old friend of Andre from Paris and is asked to tea. Andre is vociferously upset by this, but comes around when nostalgia evokes good memories.
Revelations about the stranger’s relationship with Andre emerge convoluted. Are they true? Does The Woman even exist or is she someone Anne discovered in the diaries? We close with Andre and Madeleine at the lunch table as his beloved wife deals again with the mushrooms. She’s happy the girls (and Paul) have left them alone.
I have a theory about what we’ve witnessed, but I’m sure you’ll concoct your own.
The piece is beautifully directed by Jonathan Kent, so fluid that one vignette morphs into another with past and present references seamlessly occupying the same space. Pacing is marvelous. No action is without motive.
The company is fine, but it’s Atkins and Price we’ve come to see. Two war horses with impeccable pedigree inhabiting their characters with masterful naturalness and specificity. Atkins a stolid, smart, stubborn woman, Price, a former intellect, now confused, panicked, childlike. That they represent a symbiotic couple is unquestionable, as, in my book, is the outcome.
A case where the play’s NOT the thing.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Eileen Atkins (Madeleine) and Jonathan Pryce (Andre)
Manhattan Theatre Club presents
The Height of the Storm by Florian Zeller
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jonathan Kent
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street