André has lost his watch. In fact, it is perpetually lost, and that is significant as we are bound to André and inserted into his experience of the world in The Father, beautifully brought to life at the Vortex Theatre (2900 Carlisle Blvd. NE). Brilliantly, and we must assume quite deftly, translated from the playwright star Florian Zeller's original French by Christopher Hampton, this production directed by Lee Kitts quietly unmoors us just as André is set adrift. We go together.
What time is it? Whose apartment is this? Who are these people? The audience shares all of our star's confusion. You see, André, an elegant old man, is being undone by dementia. Through simple theatrical tricks—actors change, the set subtly changes, we make constant assumptions and are corrected about time and place—that are so effective it is surprising to not have seen them done before, we walk straightaway into André's embattled mind. Perhaps that this rife, emotional territory has not been much explored before is the result of simple neglect in telling the stories of the elderly. As it is told in The Father the fight to maintain a sense of identity, to hold on to some semblance of past strength is powerful, even devastating to watch unfold.
“I'm losing all my things,” André laments at one point during the perpetual search for his watch. “If this goes on much longer, I'll be naked, stark naked.” The line got a gentle laugh from the full house of the theater that night, but it is sadly prophetic. André—as the other central character, his daughter Anne, describes—was once formidable, powerful. On stage, over the course of 90 short minutes, we watch him diminish.
The effectiveness of this entire play, even with all its clever writing, hinges on the performance of our main character. Assuming the role of André, Paul Ford—a retired UNM Theatre department professor—is astoundingly good. Ford brings to life all the charm of the old man, tempers it with vitriol, adds the shuffling quality of old age and shapes André into someone that is at once hard to fully like, but evokes aching sympathy. He never asks for sympathy, but in trying to assert the authority and control he is no longer capable of possessing, he naturally receives it. In the winter of his life, André is returned to the helplessness of a child. It is frightening to watch—he can no longer recognize and connect with people and places he knows intimately, because he can't so much as recognize them when they step onto the stage. The world no longer makes any sense. The audience is not shown this tragedy, we are gifted the experience of it.
The rest of the cast is equally capable as Ford—particularly Merritt C. Glover, who, gracefully exasperated, plays André's good-natured daughter. Through peripheral characters like Anne in this small cast, just as we are treated to André's perspective, we also see the drain he is on others. The play works quite well in the intimate setting of the Vortex, in the round, with a simple set. Under Kitts' direction, the dialogue and quality of the performances are brought fully to bear—even in certain inflection, gesture. After each clipped scene we are thrown into disorienting darkness, distorted music pumping through the speakers and carrying us to the next scene. Already we are more lost than we might have guessed.
The ugliness, the tragedy of dementia, is so poignantly played here, that several audience members openly wept as we moved out of the playhouse and into the lobby, out into the night. The Father achieves that fullness of feeling, that ability to transport us so completely, to show us the experience of another so evocatively that must always be the aim of theater, but is difficult to hit so dead on. The experience—truly, the experience—of The Father is one not to be missed. Find tickets at vortexabq.org for the show that runs until Feb. 4.