Written by Florian Zeller
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jonathan Kent
In 2016, Parisian playwright Florian Zeller made his Broadway debut THE FATHER, a harrowing examination of the devastation of dementia. Seen through the eyes of its elderly protagonist, the play is composed of a series of repeated scenes, each version slightly varied from the last. Sentences are reshuffled, lines spoken by one character are reiterated by someone new. The father’s recollections become like tiles dropping out of a mosaic, leaving behind more and more gaps until the pattern of his life is no longer discernible. In THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM, the playwright again turns his attention to aging, this time with a long-married couple at the center of the story. As in THE FATHER, Zeller employs techniques like non-linear narratives and conflicting perspectives, but this time around his style is more nuanced, and the tone of the show considerably more hopeful.
The action takes place in the kitchen of a large drafty country house where André (Jonathan Pryce) a noted poet, is learning to live without his recently deceased wife. As forgetful as he is cantankerous, André proves quite a handful for his daughters, down-to-earth Anne (Amanda Drew) and free-spirited Élise (Lisa O’Hare). The best thing for all concerned would be to sell the house and get the old widower the care he needs, but cooperation from Andre is not forthcoming. Nothing unusual about that scenario. But soon the story begins to shift. Now it appears that André has passed away, and his headstrong widow Madeleine (Eileen Atkins) is the one whose future needs to be negotiated by the family. In still other scenes – possibly flashbacks – both parents are alive. But that doesn’t make things any less complicated, especially when Madeleine encounters a mysterious stranger known as The Woman (Lucy Cohu) at the marketplace. Supposedly an old friend of André’s, The Woman cozies up to Madeleine and secures an invitation to the house for tea. With her scarlet lips and form fitting dress, The Woman stands out like a sore thumb in this rustic world of drab colors and dowdy attire. More disturbingly, she spins a colorful yarn about her youth in Paris, when she had a torrid affair with a married writer. The Woman bore the writer a son, raised the child alone with no assistance from the father, and now seeks closure. She’s not asking for recompense, merely an acknowledgment that this actually happened. She claims that the writer in question was André’s friend Georges, but a postmortem perusal of Andre’s diary (yes, he dies again from time to time) indicates there may be more to the story. The family is further rattled by the arrival of Elise’s boyfriend, The Man (James Hillier), whose clean-shaven countenance and sharply attired physique instantly marks him as an outsider. A big city real estate broker with a brusque manner The Man attempts to intervene in the family’s affairs, but succeeds only in creating more problems.
By keeping the setting the same but constantly shuffling the events of the story in a seemingly random order, Zeller is clearly trying to keep guessing. The course of the show’s 80ish minutes, an overarching design begins to emerge. The key to the puzzle, it seems, is this: nothing that we see is actually happening. The characters may be real, but the events occur only in their minds. Thus, one scenario plays out after another a la Rashomon, addressing the anxieties or the different family members. What if my spouse goes before I do? What if my mind, which has served me so well all these years, falls apart? Will my past stay buried or come back to haunt me? The daughters, too, are trying on different outcomes for size as they ready themselves for the inevitable responsibilities they will soon be required to shoulder.
Anthony Ward’s appealingly ramshackle set and Hugh Vanstone’s painterly lighting provide an apt visual metaphor for the fading, bucolic world in which André and Madeleine feel at home. Under Jonathan Kent’s assured direction, the ensemble gels into a convincing family unit; consistent in their characters even as the plot keeps reshaping itself. He could not ask, of course, for two more consummate leads. Pryce attacks the part like a modern-day Lear, roaring frightfully one minute, trembling with disoriented frailty the next. As the smart, laconic Madeleine, Atkins infuses her straightforward dialogue with layers of pained subtext. Fittingly, the script finally affords them a quiet moment, just the two of them, and the two veteran actors play it with a palpable sense of love and authenticity. Here we see André and Madeleine at their most relaxed, momentarily free of the whirligig of unwanted visitors and ostentatiously concerned offspring. At last, they can enjoy the simple pleasures of the rootedness of married life, regardless of what’s to come. In the height of the storm, there is no greater sanctuary.
THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM continues through November 24, 2019 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue, New York NY 10036. Tickets at telecharge.com.