The Height of the Storm written by Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother, The Son trilogy) translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Jonathan Kent will be poignant for those who have family with Alzheimer’s or parents with advanced dementia. After seeing the play, my experience having relatives with these devastating conditions darkly reminded me of the MO of how such folks live in existential time. The divide between past and present, fabrication and fact are filtered through unconscious impulses that make memories rise to the surface of consciousness like dead fish subject to random currents. In the tangled mind of those with dementia, hallucinations prevail. Memory co-exists with scenes in “present” time and all remains fluid, colored by the perceptions of the moment in whatever moment it is.
Living under such confusion remains frustrating for the sufferer and family who must bear up against the onslaught of alternating states of consciousness and melding realities. Family members sustain the disease. Forced to be complicit with the fantastical consciousness exhibited by their afflicted parent, they choose not to upset them with the facts of current time, place and circumstance which would be pointless. The afflicted wouldn’t accept what they say anyway, convinced of the truth of where they are, lost in their dreamscape of past perceptions. It is a cruel joke to try to make sense of the nonsensical.
And so it goes for the characters in Zeller’s The Height of the Storm which elucidates a marriage between André and Madeleine that has lasted amidst triumphs and conflicts for fifty years. And so it goes for the audience who arbitrates the “reality” in present time of what it experiences during the interactions of family members (André, Madeleine, Anne, Élise) though clouds of glorious time past intervene. And sometimes the clouds work themselves into a storm, the memory of which repeats and repeats in their conversation.
In this play the fog, confusion, the displacement of time present with time past are acutely manifested by writer André (Jonathan Pryce in a portrayal that is a tour de force) though the entire family manifests elements of the same as they relate to him and each other. Madeleine played with astounding, measured brightness by Eileen Atkins is André’s stoic, vibrant, organized, take-charge wife who floats in and out of his stream-of-consciousness as he fades in and out of her conversations with her daughters.
Zeller also focused on dementia in another of his plays, The Father (2016, The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre) starring Frank Langella who won a Tony Award for his performance. In The Father, another iteration of André must deal with the vicissitudes of memory loss, confusion, and his psychological responses of anger to that which is uncontrollable, his disease. Without the mitigating influence of his wife, André and his two daughters Élise and Anne must confront his worsening condition. The arc of development is explicit; we “get it.” We empathize and find catharsis in the tragedy of a family impacted by the mental disintegration of the patriarch. In The Father Zeller wraps up the characters, development and themes neatly; we are grateful, move on and generally forget what we’ve witnessed.
There is no such easiness in The Height of the Storm which is unforgettable because it is elliptical, abstruse and annoyingly so until we understand Zeller’s themes and the core of where he is driving this work. There is no clear arc of development in chronological story-telling. Time is defined by memory and that is the present consciousness. The amorphous, vague threads of conversation are filled with details chucked into the dialogue as we watch the daughters, Anne (Amanda Drew), Élise (Lisa O’Hare) father (André) and mother (Madeleine) interact, slip in and out of present and past moments, watch each other, are silent listeners. The moment we think we understand the concrete facts, for example that André won’t talk to Anne initially because he is caught up in a foggy Alzheimer’s reverie looking out the window, the axis of the scene shifts and he speaks to her and ends the interlude spouting, “Toll the bell, toll the bell. For all of you. Oblivion to the living!”
This is a pronouncement that seems incredibly profound. And though we may admit it to ourselves or not, we face an oblivion of belief. We presume we understand what is happening around us in our lives, but it is our own perception, what we choose to believe about aspects of reality. We have no way of proving we are right or wrong. That is a form of oblivion whether we accept it or not. Similarly, as the characters in the play progress with each other, we watch/soldier on attempting to grab hold of and make sense of the interactions of the family. Moments of wisdom fade. And another curious scene of convolution ensues.
Zeller’s work is replete with axis shifts that create staggering imbalances so we are confounded about what is happening because we are not grounded in time. That it appears to be mid morning in a stately Victorian kitchen with a study nook, hallway lined with bookshelves, a kitchen window overlooking a garden doesn’t help. Precisely when the events occurred and in what sequence remains opaque. This is one morning of one or two mornings in the consciousness of André and Madeleine and their grown daughters who visit at vital times. Then it appears the mornings meld together without particularity except for tidbits of “apparent” distinguishing details in conversation.
After Anne and André discuss the problem of his living alone in the house by himself, the scene subtly shifts and the atmosphere brightens with the truth or appearance of reality. The efficient, solid-state Madeleine comes in from shopping and lightly humors André. Is this present reality unfolding or someone’s memory from time past? Surely, this scene happened at some point in their lives. But when? We must sustain our confusion as uncomfortable as it is. But not for long because Zeller is constantly upending our former perceptions and muddling our attempt to make meaning. We experience André’s addled mind at work navigating the sea of confusion that is representative of those with dementia. And yet, we also experience Madeleine’s grounded, fact-based consciousness in alternate scenes after atmosphere shifts that randomly intrude, governed by a family member’s comment that joggles a memory and changes the mood once more from lightness to the austere and portentous.
Flowers arrive signifying someone has died. Who? It can’t be the characters present. As Madeleine and her daughters have a conversation about André in the past tense as he sits quietly in the chair, our certainty grows that he has died, physically, surely mentally. Then Zeller shifts the axis once more and in the next moments, André comes to life and he and Madeleine talk about what she is cooking (mushrooms). This subject brings up additional free associations from the past, i.e. André’s walks to look for mushrooms until he stopped when he heard another gentleman did the same and fell into the river and “died.” But we find out from André in another scene, that this man’s death was faked when André sees him years later with a woman. It is one more detail which we cannot deem with certainty is either credible or fictional or twisted threads of both.
With such convolutions in the characters’ conversations, Zeller demonstrates the randomness of consciousness, reality and memory. With each uncertainty prevails. In the scenes that follow, it appears that Madeleine has died as his daughters decide what to do with André, who for his part, is contented to stay in the gorgeous house and particularly the kitchen where he appears most comfortable remembering his lunches with Madeleine cooking mushrooms.
Zeller plays with our suppositions like a magician. He makes it untenable for us to choose what to assume is happening. In this we become like André and unlike Madeleine who remains assured, nonplussed and forward moving. An important theme Zeller emphasizes is that the nature of perception, choices, undercurrents that propel memories into the foreground may be wholly unreliable to begin with. If we are unlucky to have dementia, such expurgations from the unconscious force us to live in the memory we’ve edited as reality without the barriers of time. But that may not be so unlucky, after all. It is the epitome of existentialism, of living in the moment, whatever the moment is, whenever it comes, erupts, departs, until another “moment” arrives.
As a result themes of uncertainty of what consciousness is are reflected in each of the characterizations in the play. We cannot identity who has died, what the time line is, when the storm came and whether the scenes are the characters transformative memories or reflections of André‘s thoughts in his besieged mind which may not be as addled as we assume. An attempt to make sense of the “say what?” without outside evidence to understand whether André or Madeleine or both have died remains futile. Regardless, whichever parent has fled or will flee the planet first, the other is or will be left to deal with the memories, consequences and aftermath- for the daughters’ upset or consternation at the loss of a partner. Or something else. It appears that Madeleine is able to cope better than André whose lifeblood is Madeleine. However, that, too, is equivocal.
Finally, in the last scene, the daughters leave with all of their obstructions. The couple have the house and memories to themselves. It is a scene of pure consciousness with humor and heartbreak. Only then do we comfortably settle on the determination that when all was said and done, considering André‘s affairs, personality difficulties, and Madeleine’s wifely stoicism and love for her husband, their marriage was a fairly good one and they are together. Of course, Madeleine gets the credit for the unity of their marriage which André acknowledges. But for all our comfort, we may be witnessing the conversation of two ethereal beings in present consciousness, a sardonic irony that Zeller teases us with. Interestingly, with all of our assumptions about who dies first, after that storm, consciousness continues, a resurrection. And the unity the couple established and now share remains uplifted forever.
It seems that one of Zeller’s intents for the play as a series of reflections and vital vignettes that have little arc of development, is to place us in a consternation of misshapen realities that keep us off balance and frustrated until we relax. Such is the haphazard upside down world of those with dementia and those who must negotiate another’s dementia. But the theme also arises that those who live in their beliefs and certainties are not unlike the Alzheimer’s patient. They too may live in a fog of past memories, dreaming up what never happened, only they don’t know it. For both the ill and not so ill, Zeller affirms that glimpses of reality are fleeting; the past or future dominates. Living in the moment is a rarity. But if one is fortunate as both characters are at the play’s conclusion, one lives in a state of agreement and contentment “when the kids have gone.”
Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins make this dense work sing and vibrate it into life, infusing their characters with truth and authenticity. Kudos to the creative team: Anthony Ward (scenic & costume design) Hugh Vanstone (lighting design) Paul Groothuis (sound design) Gary Yershon (original music).
The Height of the Storm runs with no intermission at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.