Alzheimer’s disease is both a difficult and depressing subject on which to write. It’s a topic that many people do not want to discuss, and if one is living with it as the caregiver or as the patient, it is an all-consuming subject that threatens to overwhelm one with sorrow. Yet, The Manhattan Theatre Club’s ninety minute production (no intermission) of The Father manages to tackle it with grace. Its production is both riveting and experiential. Doug Hughes directs Christopher Hampton’s translation from French to English of Florian Zeller’s emotionally written drama. Frank Langella plays André, the father, Kathryn Erbe plays Anne, his daughter, Brian Evers plays Pierre, Anne’s boyfriend, and Hannah Cabell plays Laura, the hired caregiver. This production through its brilliant writing brings the audience into the Alzheimer’s experience. How does it feel to be confused about one’s surroundings? About the time of day? How does it feel to believe that someone is a complete stranger, except that he is not? Thus, for experiential sake, and for a brief period, we are drawn into the Alzheimer’s patient’s world via a well written and translated script.
The Father illustrates, without judgment, the agonizing decisions that families make when caring for a parent who has Alzheimer’s disease, and the effect that the disease has on the entire family. Suddenly there is a shift in roles. The adult child becomes the parent and the parent becomes the child. This task increases with difficulty when the adult child has no one with whom to share the responsibility. Caring for the parent becomes all-encompassing, and often involves multiple caregivers. Because of obstinacy, and because the ill family member is often of advanced age, finding a caregiver that can withstand the challenges is often difficult. Adult children have to decide whether the parent will be cared for at home or at a nursing home. The Father also depicts what can happen when the parent is left alone with the caregiver or with someone else. The play also explores the total impact of the disease on all of the caregivers, be it family or otherwise. How does one know whether the parent is receiving humane treatment or geriatric abuse at the hands of the caregiver or someone else? How does the adult child handle the demands of dementia? How does the adult child maintain the demands of his own life?
Throughout the performance of The Father, the audience member can become disoriented to time and place. He may become confused and unable to identify the characters because their appearance has changed (in the play, other characters step in to replace characters, thereby adding to confusion). This confusion is intentional. We are not supposed to recognize some characters. We are not supposed to know the location of the action or whether something actually happened. Was something a figment of our imagination or did the conversation happen?
The most extraordinary actor in this production is Frank Langella (André), whom I first saw as King Lear at BAM. The audience is able to empathize with André. Frank Langella’s performance shows a range of emotion: fear, anger, rage, sorrow, contentment, and ebullience. Langella’s character shows fear when he is deeply afraid of Pierre because Pierre is physically and emotionally abusive. We see intense anger, yet tenderness when overwhelmed at the effects of the disease. For example, André accuses his caregiver of theft, but he routinely forgets where he hides his watch. Moreover, a stately figure that falls from his intellectual stature, Langella as André projects that decline in his mental capacity as he vehemently portrays an ill parent who forgets the time of day and forgets his acquaintances. A man who appears to have had great intellectual abilities (The set exemplifies his intellect and the living room has an extensive library) refuses to acknowledge that he is experiencing difficulties. Langella as André shows ebullience when his caregiver reminds him of one of his daughters (but he forgets that she is deceased). At other times he is content to stay at home wearing his pajamas because he sees no need to change. The other characters’ performances are respectable. We see Avers’s raw emotion as Pierre when the situation affects his relationship with Anne, Erbe’s character. Hannah Cabell projects empathy and care as Laura, the caregiver. Erbe’s steadfastness is portrayed throughout her performance; her character, Anne, experiences both emotional fatigue and disappointment, but her character’s determination comes across through Erbe’s strong performance.
The lighting (constant light versus dark), costume design, props, and set design bring reality to this play. The creative team’s synergy aids the theater-goer in understanding the demands of the disease on everyone. The depiction of a changing world of Alzheimer’s via props and changing set design, helps us experience the effects of this very difficult disease as we see our loved ones become emotionally unrecognizable. Truly, as the stage goes dark and light again, we feel for a brief moment the world of the Alzheimer’s patient.
Although this play is not entertaining in the traditional sense, exploring the subject and seeing Langella’s performance is worth the time and money. It’s playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway.
Two of my aunts and one of my uncles partnered with each other when my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. For over a ten year period they, along with the caregiver, Diane, worked tirelessly and assiduously to care for my grandmother. Diane is now a member of our family, for she epitomizes the attributes of a great caregiver.