Review: "The Father" at The Coal Mine Theatre

  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

Occasionally, a play will probably gut punch an audience so hard emotionally it might be hesitant in applauding during the curtain call because it seems so out of place, or so wrong to do so. From my experience, I’ve discovered that if this occurs, it means the actors and the entire team have succeeded in their task. Members of the audience will probably end up not being able to speak or be extremely quiet while they quietly sort through what they have just seen.

Tonight, this occurred for me in seeing The Coal Mine Theatre’s extraordinarily moving and par excellence ensemble production of ‘The Father’ by Florian Zeller.

The intimate venue of The Coal Mine Theatre lends itself extremely well to this haunting story of what it made me feel very keenly what it would be like to suffer from Alzheimers or dementia. And in the outstandingly, remarkable directorial hands of Coal Mine Chief Engineer Ted Dykstra, this near flawless production moved me so many times and continues to do so two hours later.

Anna Treusch’s set design fluidly became several places with a simple moving, pushing or lifting of tables and chairs. Before the show begins, there are two doorways up right and up left for entrances and exits. A circular table with three chairs and a lace table cloth can be found up centre stage. There is an ottoman down left and a table with a lamp and phone. Angled down stage right and to the left is a chair with a tartan looking throw over the back.  A bar and drinks table can be found next to the doorway up stage left.

I loved Richard Feren’s sound design of grand orchestral music at the top of the show with the musical selection as the audience left the auditorium. For me, grand orchestral music captures a sense of grand dignity.

To parallel this sense of grand dignity are six impeccable actors who delivered genuinely natural performances and, through, their characterizations, are all forever changed by watching, feeling, seeing, hearing and listening to the effects of the dreaded diseases of Alzheimers and/or dementia.  Apologies at this point if I mention some spoilers in the next few paragraphs.

Eric Peterson is magnificent to watch as Andre, the central character. We enter Andre’s world and feel his pain, his anguish, his embarrassment, his humour, his wit and his charm given the context of the moment where the disease takes him. I marvelled how Mr. Peterson channeled so much energy while remaining simply seated in his chair. Instead he uses this energy and we see so much of the decline of his characterization through his eyes. It might be a tired cliché to use here again, ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’ but Mr. Peterson uses his eyes and facial expressions to convey the multitude of raw emotions Andre experiences.  A tour de force.

As Andre’s daughter, Anne, Trish Fagan realistically captures a torn, heartfelt daughter who is pulled in all directions. Anne wants to ensure her father is alright while ensuring that she too is also entitled to some of her own happiness in life. Beau Dixon as Anne’s husband, Pierre, becomes that constant reminder to Anne, and to all of us, that yes we are to enjoy some of life’s happiness if we have earned that chance and opportunity.  I was shocked at one point, nevertheless, when Mr. Dixon, as Pierre, confronts Andre to ask if he is possibly feigning his illness as he does not want his daughter to leave Paris and live in London. Sometimes in life’s trials, one has to ask/demand answers to tough questions and Mr. Dixon reminded me that we do have to be tough.

Oyin Oladejo is the sweet caretaker, Laura, who is bravely determined to make sure she can help take care of Andre (on his good and not so good days) while Anne is able to leave her father alone. Paul Fauteux and Michelle Monteith as the Man and Woman intrigued me quite a bit each time they appeared since they are not who they are when they say they are. (I hope that made sense) There was an element and sense of dread in trying to figure out if these people were from Andre’s confused state of mind. The underscored music also heightened the tension of the moment. Ms. Fauteux’s alone moment with Andre as his daughter leaves was heart stopping to watch but had quite an impact as I heard many people around me gasp (and yes, so did I).

Final Comments: I would bet that Coal Mine’s production will probably be nominated for some Dora awards this year. The social justice issues of examining dignity confronting a debilitating and ultimately life destroying disease has been handled with great respect in ‘The Father’. Beg, borrow or plead to get a ticket and to see true ensemble perfection.

‘The Father’ runs 90 minutes with no intermission.

Performances continue to March 3 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto. I hear remaining performances are nearly  sold out; however, you could take a chance and visit or call 1-800-838-3006 to check if Rush Seats are available for any particular performance.

Actors: Beau Dixon, Trish Fagan, Paul Fauteux, Michelle Monteith, Oyin Oladejo, Eric Peterson

Director: Ted Dykstra, Assistant Director: Oyin Oladejo, Set/Costume Designer: Anna Treusch, Lighting Designer: Bonnie Beecher, Sound Designer: Richard Ferren, Stage Manager: Ashley Ireland, Production Manager: Charissa Wilcox

Photo of Eric Peterson (seated) and Trish Fagan by Kristina Ruddick.