Did you ever wonder what it would be like to slowly lose your mind?
That’s exactly what the innovative new play opening this week in West Chesterfield, N.H., is trying to dramatize.
Actors Theatre Playhouse presents Florian Zeller’s The Father in its regional premiere for eight performances only on Fridays and Saturdays from Sept. 21 through Oct. 13, at 7:30 p.m.
An internationally acclaimed and theatrically thrilling work, The Father is a moving portrayal of Andre, an elderly man suffering from dementia, as seen through his own eyes.
Directed by Burt Tepfer, the production features Michael Fox Kennedy, along with Mo Hart, David Hiler, Jim Bombicino, Sadie Fischesser, and Julie Holland.
Winner of the 2014 Molière Award for France’s Best Play when originally presented in France, Florian Zeller’s Le Pere was translated by British playwright Christopher Hampton, best known for his play based on the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses and the film version Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and also more recently for writing the nominated screenplay for the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
The Father has been successfully produced on the West End in London and Broadway. For its American production, it received a Tony Nomination for Best Play in 2016. Frank Langella won a Tony in the leading role of Andre.
The premise of The Father is simple but compelling.
As Tepfer writes in a news release, “An old man is home in his apartment as people come and go. We look inside the mind of Andre, this retired dancer living with his adult daughter Anne, and her boyfriend. Or is it her first husband? And is she really moving to London? Laura, his new caregiver, the one he seems to like, keeps him company. So then why would she steal his watch?”
Tepfer believes that The Father constantly confounds expectations and works almost like a thriller, as Andre begins perceiving that complete strangers keep turning up in his flat.
“Whether he fully understands it or not, Andre is reaching the end of his time on this planet, and he’s starting to lose grip on his sense of time and reality,” Tepfer said. “Florian Zeller uses dramatic structure to mimic the state of a mind deteriorating through dementia. Each scene is an elliptical extended snapshot that seems to evoke a memory, but quickly the absurdist contradictions crowd in.”
Tepfer believes The Father raises many important questions.
“The loyal efforts by his daughter to help him only lead to conflict about what needs and desires of his are to be honored,” Tepfer adds. “Such as when is he no longer able to care for himself, and how does it feel to lose control of where you live?”
Unlike traditional dramas about Alzheimer’s and dementia, however, The Father does not focus on the caregivers or loved ones affected by the disability. Rather, it spotlights Andre experiencing it himself.
“Zeller allows us to see things through Andre, as he struggles to make sense of a progressively befuddling world,” Tepfer writes. The audience enters theatrically into Andre’s vision as they are cajoled to perceive the world through his eyes.
But that is precisely what Tepfer thinks is so daring and insightful about The Father.
“In the play we see, from the inside out, the confusion, rage, vulnerability, incomplete memories, fantasies, and fears of a previously powerful man who is experiencing the loss of his world through dementia,” he explains. “The play, ingeniously wrought to show how this decline and loss of capacity is felt by the sufferer, is crafted superbly with honesty, pathos, and with surprising humor.”
A doctor’s insight
Tepfer, a cardiologist with the Center for Cardiovascular Health, a department of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, feels he has some special insight to the issues in The Father.
“Through my profession, and more recently working for Hospice, I have been able to understand what is like for people to lose a grip on their lives, whether they are physically or mentally ill,” he says.
Tepfer comes in contact with normally self-sufficient people who suddenly find themselves needing caregiving, and feeling it is a difficult new reality to face.
He was attracted to The Father because it so vividly dramatized the inner workings of that reality.
“When The Father came across my desk — or to be exact how things occur these days, should I say across my computer? — I quickly realized the power of this play was immense, and became eager to direct a production,” he says.
After many years participating in theater through acting, Tepfer recently turned to directing. The Father is the third full-length production Tepfer has directed, although he has also directed numerous 10-minute plays, all for ATP. And Tepfer feels he has grown a lot as a director.
“Unlike an actor who just has to know his part, as a director you have to understand and become involved with the whole play,” he says. “More than ever with The Father, I was involved with all areas of the production, from guiding the actors, to working with the set, to learning about lighting,” he says.
Not that Tepfer wants to imply that he did it all alone. He is grateful for all the collaborations that have made the show possible.
“It has been my great pleasure to work with such a dedicated, experienced, and talented group of actors for this production,” he explains. “We have had the luxury of a long rehearsal period and this enabled us to explore this marvelous piece in depth.
“I have also had expert guidance from a true expert in lighting, John Todd, and a marvelous set designer, Veda Crewe. The result is a play that pulls the audience into Andre’s perplexed world with great finesse and punch.
“It’s been wonderful working together to reveal that horrifying moment when the ‘signposts’ of your life begin to disappear. We hope audiences will find it as thoughtful and reflective as we have.”