Theater Review: THE FATHER (Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at Theater Wit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 10, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Uncertainty is the default drive behind the 95 excruciating minutes of French playwright Florian Zeller’s The Father. Seldom has a staged mystery shifted so suddenly and strongly between competing realities. As the protagonist Andre says, “There’s something funny going on here.” But it’s not amusing: Yes, The Father is crammed with mistaken identities but it’s no comedy. We see the world as Andre, afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, does. “I’m losing my leaves”: his take on a mind that’s cracking up.

Cunningly translated by British tyro Christopher Hampton and mordantly staged by Kay Martinovich in this Chicago premiere from Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, this ultra-fluid one-act focuses — if that’s the right word — on the treacherously amnesiac consciousness of a once-formidable patriarch in Paris. Reverting to childhood, this fragmenting father is visited by imaginary friends, so many phantoms in an ever-changing Groundhog Day that’s mired in both dysfunctional déjà vu and very short-term memory.

A straight-forward synopsis is impossible for this engrossing puzzle play. Any agreements or alignments are defied by a jumble of jostling scenarios, each momentarily authentic to Andre as they morph and mutate. The bedrock baseline here is Andre (David Darlow) caught in chronic confusion; his much-tested daughter Anne (Linda Gillum), radiantly willing but ultimately ineffectual; her boyfriend Pierre (Anish Jethmalani), achingly eager to institutionalize her dad; and Andre’s caregiver Laura (Alys Dickerson).

Then there are, simply, Woman (Laura Resinger) and Man (Bobby Wilhelmson). They become, as a passionately paranoid Andre envisions, entities like his lost daughter Elise and assorted uninvited visitors — ghosts he sees like no one else. It’s “double-casting” at its most diabolical.

What Florian Zeller — and a Lear-like David Darlow — capture completely isn’t just Andre’s self-serving excuses for his worsening disorientation and delusional thinking. Or his stuck-record repetitions. Or his denial of dementia (which perversely only confirms it). It’s the little things that hit hard here — disappearing furniture, his anger over strangers stealing the watch he can’t seem to find, his panics over pills he needs to take and the apartment he thinks he lives in, his inability to hold onto the next moment, and his unshakable suspicion that the world is playing tricks on him, not his brain.

The power of The Father is how brilliantly Zeller melds both sides of this twisted narrative, “keeping it real” when it definitely is not, when nightmares instantly conflate into actuality. We’re very much inside Andre’s deer-in-the-headlights perplexity as he loses and accuses. When the brain, the ultimate “reality principle” we rely on, can’t be depended upon to seize the truth, how much of us is still here? When loved ones can instantly become strangers, what’s the point of persisting?

Remy Bumppo’s six permutating performances are nothing less than roller-coaster thrilling. Every scene jerks us out of the last one and into a fresh new maze. To mix metaphors, there are no breadcrumbs to follow in this forest. The chairs at Theater Wit should feature seat-belts.

After all the brouhaha and its crises de coeur, most moving is the final portrait of a grand but broken old man wanting to hear a lullaby and missing his mommy. By this point the tears in David Darlow’s eyes are ours too.

photos by Michael Courier

The Father
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:30 (check for add’l performances)
ends on March 3, 2019
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit Remy Bumppo

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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