Fort Worth — It’s an old actor’s last line: Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
Or is it the other way around?
By the time you’ve experienced Stage West’s farcical, reality-bending and ultimately mournful production of Florian Zeller’s The Father, you may have a hard time deciding.
Because comedy and death are both on the line here, filtered through the increasingly muddled mind of André, an aging gentleman of Paris who rages against being “helped”—but can still muster a soft-shoe and a flirty wink as all his certainties slip away. “You’re gorgeous!” he purrs, bending to kiss a young lady’s hand. “Do we know each other?”
Of course, director Tina Parker (the award-winning Co-Artistic Director of Kitchen Dog Theater making a rare and welcome appearance across the county line) and Stage West had us at hello when they cast the inimitable David Coffee as André. Area audiences have a long onstage history with this veteran showman, from musicals to Shakespeare and back again. He’s a member of our emotional family. So who better to lead us through the maze of André’s tragi-comic awareness?
The old man’s life has shrunk to the size of his apartment—or is it his daughter’s? He struggles to make sense of each moment, and the moments are getting well and truly weird: furniture moves, artwork disappears, and perfect strangers wander the apartment…plotting to steal his wrist watch, he’s sure.
Many of us have been at the side of family or friends caught between “senior moments” and life-altering dementia. But to go inside that experience, to look at it with André’s eyes, is something quite different. French playwright du jour Zeller (Stage West’s regional premiere is a bit of a “get”; hopefully they snag Zeller's companion play The Mother, currently off-Broadway starring Isabelle Huppert) writes with a crisp comic edge and matter-of-fact sensibility. For a thirtysomething, he knows way more about this subject than he ought to—and doesn’t shy away from a bit of it.
And yes, it’s funny—for as long as it can be. And then it’s something more.
André’s daughter Anne (played by Jessica D. Turner) swings between concern and exasperation. She holds fast to politeness, but we hear the stress as her voice takes on a higher pitch. André has burned through several helpers, and Anne hopes sweet-tempered young Laura (Jo-Jo Steine) will appeal to her father. (Karen Parrish steps into these characters and others at surprising moments.) André says she reminds him of Elise, his other daughter—an angel, “the one I love”—not the annoying daughter who’s with him every single day. But where is Elise?
The men in Anne’s life are a puzzle to André. Is Pierre (a red-headed Cameron Cobb) Anne’s husband—or her ex? Is he the boyfriend asking her to move to London…or is that someone else named Antoine? Who, then, is the dark-haired man (Ira Steck) reading the newspaper at the dining table? We see what André doesn’t seem to know—or is it André’s perception of them?—that the men resent André’s presence, his takeover of Anne’s life. At different moments, they will confuse and frighten him (is their aggression real or imagined?)—but a scene in which André—craning his neck like an inquisitive bird, trying to see if his watch is on “that man’s” wrist—is purest comedy, breaking the thread of tension and disorder.
And so it goes, with director Parker deftly swinging the pendulum—dark moments dissolve into comedy, laughter catches in our throats. The old man has lost his watch, again. Silly old boy. How funny, and how sad. Zeller’s structure for The Father pulls from the comic tradition, as a series of blackout scenes of unpredictable length, each ending abruptly, and often with a punchy last line—whether funny or devastating. And world-renowned playwright Christopher Hampton’s translation holds onto a slight sense of French-ness in the dialogue, yet makes the comedy work in English without obvious colloquialism.
The supporting cast members, each making their debut at Stage West, walk the interesting line between real character and Andre’s creation. What we know of them, we realize with every moment, is contingent on the state of an old man’s mind. Hence, perhaps, their somewhat startling, even surreal, shifts from one personality to another, brought off with a brisk simplicity that makes the oddities hang together.
Bob Lavallee’s set design is an active presence, almost its own character. We begin in a comfortably cluttered Paris apartment, with maps, personal photos, paintings, a wall cabinet stocked with personal gear, another with wine and whisky. Ingeniously, in the brief moments between scenes, objects move or vanish. (Cheers to Lynn Lovett for her handling of an especially tricksy lineup of props.) Cabinets become smooth, empty walls. The trajectory, we slowly realize, is a paring down of the accumulated baggage of André’s life—the “clues” to who he is.
Costume designer Melissa Panzarello’s all-day-pajamas for André are poignantly revealing of his slow release on proper adult life. Lisa Miller’s lighting of a short scene in which Anne has a disturbing dream is haunting, and Marco Salinas’ sound design for one particular scene goes almost unheard—until we realize he’s underscoring this fraught bit of action with a high-tension hum that keeps us as unsettled as the characters onstage.
André, still wearing his watch (Does anybody really know what time it is?) remembers his mother’s “big eyes” with sudden longing. The shadows of bare branches—leaves all gone—fall across him in a room now entirely emptied of his history. The Father will make you think about your own family, and wonder about what’s to come. It’s a comedy that turns sad—but we understand that’s how life is, how it has to be.