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Eric Peterson, left, and Trish Fagan star in The Father.

  • Title: The Father
  • Written by: Florian Zeller (translation by Christopher Hampton)
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Ted Dykstra
  • Actors: Eric Peterson, Trish Fagan, Beau Dixon, Paul Fauteux, Michelle Monteith, Oyin Oladejo
  • Company: Coal Mine
  • Venue: Coal Mine Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to March 3, 2019

rating

In a senility story that is both farce and emotionless tragedy, the title character in Florian Zeller’s The Father has lost his wrist watch. “I’m losing all my things,” he says. “If this goes on much longer, I’ll be naked – stark naked.”

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As it is, André, played as cantankerous, defiant and bewildered senior by the wonderful Eric Peterson, wears only a bathrobe and pyjamas, all day. What he is losing is memory and track of time. He’s not naked yet, but he’s getting there.

The Father, which opened on Tuesday night at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre, won the French playwright Zeller the Molière Award for best play in 2014. It made its Broadway premiere, with English translation by Christopher Hampton and starring Frank Langella, in 2016. Nicholas Campbell, of television’s Da Vinci’s Inquest fame, was originally cast as the lead in the Ted Dykstra-directed production at Coal Mine, but dropped out for health reasons.

Eric Peterson, centre, plays André, a cantankerous, defiant and bewildered senior.

The action takes place in a sparsely decorated living room. Is it André’s apartment? Is that his daughter he speaks to? Who is that man that suddenly appears? André is disorientated. And, because his memory is unreliable, the audience is initially perplexed as well. (Heck, for the psychological-thriller inclined, the notion that André is not senile but the subject of a gaslighting scheme is briefly a consideration.)

Opposite Peterson’s André is Trish Fagan’s Anne, his long-suffering daughter. She takes care of her father and takes his not-so-passive abuse. André continually asks about his other daughter, who he clearly adores much more. André isn’t shy about telling Anne that she is only the second-best of his two. “Where is she?” he repeatedly asks about his favoured daughter. That he never gets an answer is answer enough.

André is not presented for the audience’s sympathy. The Father is a candid account of age-caused dementia, evenly wrought and clear of pity. The Coal Mine production is tight, fearless and worthy of the script.

We see André in a deteriorating mental state, but we learn nothing of the man he once was. His daughter says only that he once had “so much authority.” And although André tells a female caregiver that he was a tap dancer, his PJ-clad demonstration is unconvincing.

The Father opened on Tuesday night at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre.

He’s capable of charm, but also sour asides. After abruptly telling the caregiver that her “habit of laughing inanely” was unbearable, he attempts to explain away his impoliteness. “I like to take people by surprise,” he says. “It’s a special brand of humour.”

It’s a special brand of something. His daughter can only shake her head: “If you only knew him,” she says, of her father in his younger days. It is possible, though, that we know him well enough to know that he may never have been a particularly likeable man.

Still, only the most callous of souls would not feel something for a fellow human in a state of fear and confusion. André accuses a caregiver of stealing his wristwatch, but that’s not the case. He cries for his mother – a cognitive return to birth. Age isn’t taking from André; it’s just unwinding him.

The Father runs to March 3. (coalminetheatre.com)​

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