Kevin McNulty in The Search Party production of The Father. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Kevin McNulty in The Search Party production of The Father. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Mindy Parfitt produces and directs The Father, described as a tragic farce, with her newly formed theatre company, The Search Party. The company’s inaugural production, it is in tune with Parfitt’s intention “to bring emotionally powerful and aesthetically rigorous productions to Vancouver’s stages.”

The Father explores dementia through the lens of the father of two daughters, one alive and the other killed in an accident – a fact that the father has forgotten. It also addresses the stresses and pain of caregivers forced to deal with the descent of a loved one into a world of fear, emptiness and confusion. Worse, they must witness the slow disappearance of that individual until death would be a welcome release.

Kevin McNulty, as the father, drags the audience through the agonizing process of increasing forgetfulness and isolation, along with its consequences. It is draining for him, his daughter, her partner and various caregivers. It also drains the audience, to the extent that one or two repetitious scenes could be edited. They may be true to life but tend to overstate in a theatre setting.

French playwright Florian Zeller also addresses the knock-on effects on those involved with caregivers who are under stress. He tweaks our understanding of lives put on hold and relationships under pressure, and how violence on the part of both demented and compus mentus can erupt when communication inevitably breaks down.

The anguish of losing a beloved by degrees is shown through the depiction of the father’s living daughter, who takes two different forms in his troubled mind. She is played by two separate actors. Similarly, her partner/husband is represented by two different actors to confuse the situation even more. The stalwart care aid who stays the course also has to deal with the father’s sudden mood swings, while the memory of his lost daughter haunts him still.

Kevin McNulty and Emma Slipp in The Search Party production of The Father. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Kevin McNulty and Emma Slipp in The Search Party production of The Father. Photo by Tim Matheson.

The play was first mounted in Paris back in 2012 when the care of baby-boomer parents struggling with dementia began to peak, alongside the hopelessness of dealing with a condition for which there is no cure.  No psychiatrist can prescribe a pill to redress the balance. No psychologist can sit the victim on a couch and dissect his or her past for a trigger. The end is inevitable and the road toward it, protracted and painful.

However, there are many moments when, as in life, the antics of those involved in this story are charming and funny, or tender and cheering. Everyone in the supporting cast gives well-observed, articulate performances. They have obviously thrived under Parfitt’s sensitive direction. On the other hand, there are moments of anger and violence; cruelty and bitterness. They bite. But the play is constructed and directed to ease the audience into laughter and/or tears of compassion at any moment.

The set reflects the losses of mental capacity and hope. As the father’s mind empties, so does the space he inhabits. As his perception changes, pieces of furniture are moved or replaced. It’s an interesting concept, although it would have been more powerful had the huge white set been a little fuller at the outset. Pictures on walls take a moment for actors and crew to unhook. If they were of family members, houses, events that had been significant in the father’s past life, and had they disappeared one at a time, they’d have enriched the experience of memory loss.

A brief conversation with McNulty after the performance revealed the difficulty of learning lines that lead nowhere, particularly in a two-and-a-half week rehearsal period. But he did it. And more. His performance rings with authenticity, variation, truth and compassion. However, it’s hard to imagine the strength, both physical and mental, required to sustain such a performance for a run longer than ten days. Fortunately, that won’t be a problem for him in this instance.  The Search Party’s production of The Father at the Cultch ends November 30. It is well worth seeing, especially if one is dealing with dementia in any capacity: victim or caregiver; loved one or merely some passing stranger.

The Father by Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Mindy Parfitt. A The Search Party presentation on stage at the Vancity Culture Lab (1895 Venables St. Vancouver) until November 30.  Visit thecultch.com for tickets and information.