Floria Zeller, the French playwright might have called his play The Father In Winter, for The Lion in Winter was already taken. In this one act and 90-minute tragedy, adapted from the French by Christopher Hampton, a former giant of a father figure has, at the play’s start, begun his slide down the slippery slope of dementia. He finds himself in the care of his older daughter Anne, and though he doesn’t know it, he is living in her apartment with her.
We learn early on that this man, played with the artistry of Frank Langella at the peak of his powers, is already manipulating his way around the truth as he finds himself losing things and accusing others of stealing them. Anne has begun to realize her father is not merely forgetful, but is in fact slowly losing his ability to cope with reality. The device the author and Director Doug Hughes have chosen to present this difficult material to us is elevated by the superb work of Frank Langella, for whom we grow to have great empathy. The material itself is somewhat inconsistent in that the supporting characters are not nearly as interesting as the father himself.
Katherine Erbe (for years the leading lady of Law and Order: Criminal Intent) is attractive and earnest but was lacking in energy and in her scenes with Langella, her Anne is well meaning and ardent, but no match for her dad. Hannah Cabell plays one of the nurses’ aides who reminds father of his younger daughter, clearly his favorite, and as a result, he gets along well with her — until his confused mind does a quick turnaround and he becomes suddenly offensive.
The two men who figure prominently in Anne’s life are unappealing and colorless. Again, the writing does not offer the actors much range and when father is offstage, their scenes with Anne and others are decidedly more what we’d expect from an afternoon soap opera.
As this play is conceived from the father’s point of view, it is in the end saved by the richness of Mr. Langella’s work. The directorial and scenic concept, by Scott Pask, is effective too, for it involves the diminishing of the beautifully elegant apartment in which father is living, and by the time he is reduced to a hospital bed, the room that surrounds it is virtually bare. The final moments are as moving and heartbreaking as the old gent.
This play may be rough going for anyone who has lived through dementia with a loved one. For others it is an informative and ultimately moving depiction of what sadly can become part of life for some.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Father plays at Manhattan Theatre Club performing at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre – 261 West 47th Street, in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.