Strindberg's The Father is about an army captain, Adolf (Angus Hepburn) and his wife, Laura (Terry Ann Bennett). She expertly manipulates him into doubting whether their daughter, Bertha, is his, a suggestion that drives him over the edge into insanity. She also manipulates her brother (the local pastor) and the new doctor into thinking that the captain's obsession with his daughter's paternity is a sign of insanity, thus setting him up to be committed. Adolf responds to Laura's attack with the facts of a Victorian-era man's role in society: a woman gives up her rights when she marries, in exchange for a man's protection. (He also threatens to kill himself if she pushes the insanity argument, thereby doing her out of the life insurance.) It is a battle between Olympic-class fencers that turns Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? into a sandlot argument.
From the beginning, numerous ideas pop up, to resurface repeatedly: the roles of men and women, the unprovability of paternity, religion vs. science, predestination vs. free will -- even extraterrestial life. Like Palestinians and Israelis, the two antagonists argue and haggle, but the battle goes inexorably on -- there can be only one winner.
Hepburn and Bennett's performances were a clinic on the eternal question, what is good acting? These two were not only listening closely to each other, they were constantly alive to a cauldron of thoughts bubbling in their own minds. Amanda Hilson, too, as their daughter, showed an astute combination of innocence, forwardness, and misguided loyalty in a perfectly cast role. Suzan Perry, as the old, religion-crazed nanny, Margaret, was also perfectly cast, as a black-draped, Bible-toting Cabbage Patch doll, though she didn't have the fire and energy of the two principals. Colin Ryan showed a pleasing aspect as the pragmatic young guardsman Nöjd whose possible impregnation of a maid starts the play off. Thomas G. Reitz and Peter Brase as the pastor/doctor duo were less successful at infusing their characters with spontaneity and variety.
The play, on reading, seems impossible: a man goes out in the snow on an errand and comes back mad. The success of the huge dramatic arc gives credit not only to the actors but to director Ralph Moniz. Every recurrence of the thematic material was pointed up, and the pace was usually breathtaking (a bit too much so at the end, when opening-night jitters apparently took over). John Osborne, the original Angry Young Man, subtly modernized the script without detracting from its 1887 roots (it played as if written yesterday).
Costumes (Suzan Perry) were lovingly detailed. The set (uncredited) was a well-chosen desk, couch, and rug and not much more. Lights (Sean Bowen) consisted of the Producers' Club's depressing complement of track lighting. Sound comprised interval music and a couple of jarring sound effects. In memory, though, this Father will play an open-ended run on the mental stage of a real theatre, softly lit by real stage lights.
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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton