There is always a danger, as an artist, in launching forth with a single cause or affliction or ideology and melding it into a work of art. The passion to persuade, to shed some needful light, can overawe the project, resulting in a book or movie or play that is at once simplistic, condescending, haranguing and dull.
All art is political, Orwell rightly pointed out, but he forgot to add that not all politics make good art (as Czech author Milan Kundera once quipped, Orwell’s 1984 might best be reduced to a political pamphlet).
This caveat seems especially true when it comes to works of art dealing with a specific malady, because the stakes are so damn high. Often, the more desperate and single-minded the author’s plea that we take the mortal danger seriously, the more we feel held hostage, threatened by our own cold-heartedness.
Florian Zeller’s stunning play The Father (translated from the French by Christopher Hampton), about a man succumbing to the dementia of late Alzheimer’s disease, sidesteps all the treacly pitfalls of over-determined awareness-building. With humor, deep empathy and a canny eye for the intimate details of domestic strife, Zeller submerges the audience in an atmosphere that speaks to what is universal in the human condition, without ever losing sight of the specifics of the condition that creates havoc among her characters.
University Theatre’s production, directed by Nelson Barre, does tremendous honor to Zeller’s vision, which places us directly into the mind of André (Ryan Sayegh), a proud and terrified man slowly losing his grip on time and on reality itself. André’s memory loss is treated with dream logic — furniture is removed randomly by faceless stagehands, and time slips backward or forward 10 years as one person leaves and another seamlessly enters the same scene — in such a way that we are caught at ground-zero of his confusion, trying to sort out the jigsaw puzzle of blighted memory.
André’s daughter Anne (Jenna Gaitan) appears as a trembling point of reference in this shifting and dislocated narrative. She is a moving portrait of the embattled, despairing family member whose own identity is subsumed by the fractured reality of her father’s life. In one scene Anna is divorced; in the next she is married to Pierre (Andrew Tesoriero); and then, next thing you know, she is moving to London, trying to set her father up with Laura, a preternaturally chipper caretaker (Gabby Socolofsky).
At any given moment, a figure in a grotesque plastic mask will enter André’s apartment, claiming to be someone he knows. The result of such slippages in time and identity is that his terror becomes a suspenseful first-person phantasmagoria that resembles, in all its surreal existential terror, a short story by Kafka or an episode of Black Mirror.
On the surface, such artistic flourishes might appear cheeky or disrespectful, a diminishment of the very real horrors of Alzheimer’s; in action, on the stage, they are devastating. The play treats the illness at once as reality and as metaphor, the better to reveal how Alzheimer’s enacts the ultimate erasure, eating away at meaning itself. And, as The Father shows so effectively, there may be nothing more frightening than slowly losing the thread of your own story.
University Theatre’s production handles this material with confidence and grace. Barre’s direction is understated, almost terse, an approach that ekes out the haunted quality of the material. Rather than drawing undue attention to the confusion on stage, it treats it matter-of-factly, the better to disarm us. And the cast is excellent, especially Sayegh, whose restraint — equal parts charm and addled anguish — brings home the ultimate insult of being overthrown by one’s own mind.
The Father continues through Feb. 10 at University of Oregon’s Hope Theater; tickets at 541-346-4363.