Gremlin Theater's THE FATHER is a Spare, Disorienting, Moving Journey through Dementia

BWW Review: Gremlin Theater's THE FATHER is a Spare, Disorienting, Moving Journey through DementiaFlorian Zeller's adventurous script, winner of the 2014 Moliere Prize for best new play in France, takes care of parents who are losing their memories, disappearing into dementia, and (perhaps) undergoing personality changes to boot? If we are the unfortunate elder in decline – keep a grip on our own identity, track what's happening around us, and bear the weight of the unrelenting disaster underway?

Gremlin Theater has crafted a spare, compelling performance of THE FATHER (in Christopher Hampton's adaptation) which unrolls in 90 minutes without intermission. As the right choice, since there is no respite from the familial dilemma we are witnessing, and so there should be no break for the audience. Director Ellen Fenster moves her six thrillers around the intimate thrust space with pragmatic efficiency; there's no room in their spirits for fancifulness, and the blocking matches that.

The show opens in medias: Anne (well-played by Miriam Schwartz) is arguing with her father Andre (veteran actor Craig Johnson) about the last caregiver after Andre has been honored with her watch. There's no rising action; we're just plunged into the midst of the crisis. This is the first of many effective departures from the well-being play structure. Several scenes repeat but with personnel changed out. Abusive moments occur – some verbal, some (mildly) physical – but we do not know if these actually happened or if they are part of the paranoia of the title character. This is not a bad thing, but it is not the same.

Edgy strings at the beginning, and good sound designing by Katharine Horowitz, help establish the discordant mental landscape. From the set. Horowitz is a composer, from the set. (Set and lights are by the Gremlin's resident technical director, Carl Schoenborn.) Again, this subtractive action gives us a sense of the way in which the main character's physical anchors, those things that help him know who and where he is, keep disappearing . It works.

Craig Johnson is on stage almost without break. It does not need to be prettifying the character's decline. He is able to establish that he is a bit of a slippery charmer. At one point he says "I like taking people by surprise: it's a special brand of humor." Elise in Anne's presence. Keep the play away from didacticism. And he is believable as he inhabits the emotionally overwrought moments of his worsening condition.

Miriam Schwartz as Anne is also fully credible, and is a mixture of compassion, wounded grieving, and exhaustion to the part. She delivers one killer monologue (which I hope has made it into audition materials) with simple authenticity.

These two are supported by four other actors (Matt Wall, Emily Grodzik, Olivia Wilusz, and Peter Christian Hansen) who performs as well as doubling as set crew stripping down the set until it is bare. Peter Christian Hansen is the only performer in the cast, and also the Artistic Director at Gremlin, as well as a producer for this show.

Gremlin has been shown to be suited to their simple space. After the show The saw, audience members were sharing their own family stories on the walk. The alchemy in theatrical fusions of text, imagination, and live presence can bring strangers together to contemplate private dilemmas. Gremlin's THE FATHER succeeds in doing this. It will not make you laugh or bedazzle you with razzmatazz, and it may not be one for youngsters. I recommend it. The show runs through January 27.

Photo credit: Alyssa Kristine

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