What’s It Like to Grow Old? A Jolting Play Gives the Audience an Inside Look

Actor Sasson Gabai gives a sterling performance in Beit Lessin's 'The Father' by Florian Zeller.

Daniel Kaminski

Recently in these pages I spoke glowingly about the charm and delicacy of French farces as opposed to the English brand. My point of reference was the splendid Beit Lessin Theater production of “A Farewell Dinner.” Now I’m about to praise another Beit Lessin production of another French play, “The Father,” by Florian Zeller. Though this time it’s far from a farce.

Actually, I’d prepared for a farce, because Zeller’s previous play (“The Truth,” also a Beit Lessin production) was indeed just that. But the story in “The Father” – the lead role is superbly rendered by the veteran actor Sasson Gabai – is of a very different order. It’s bewildering and jolting, and gets into your head and your guts as only the theater can.

It’s a tricky play. In the first scene we meet Andre, an elderly fellow who lives alone and seems to be in control of himself and his life. His daughter (played by Yael Vekstein in a moving, humane performance, in which she stirs our empathy for her sense of helplessness) tries to get the wayward father to cooperate with a woman who has been hired to assist him. She also relates that she will soon be moving to London.

But in the next scene it turns out that Andre actually lives in his daughter’s house. She’s living with a man who introduces himself as Pierre (Hai Maor), who suspects that Andre is simply playing games with them, and threatens him. But when the daughter comes home from shopping, she doesn’t look like the daughter we saw in the previous scene (because it’s not Vekstein, but Michal Levy). And then, in another scene, we meet Andre again in his daughter’s apartment (Vekstein again) with her man, Pierre (Tal Danino, who’s thin, in contrast to the heavyset Maor).

Gradually the viewer discovers that he’s inside Andre’s head, which is sliding full-tilt into dementia. We are used to talking about a split personality, but this play is about a split reality, illusionary, changing, when an ageing brain remembers segments, confuses information and is unable to sustain a stable, continuous picture of reality.

In the course of the play we accompany Andre from a situation of living alone, fighting the assistance others want to give him; then in his daughter’s home and finally in a nursing institution. And it all takes place in one space, designed by Kinneret Kish, which gradually loses the details within it. Andre holds on to the moments he remembers, has his share of illusions, fights for his sanity, his self-respect and his personality, which slips away from him by degrees. The viewer finds himself inside that head and that psyche, and it’s confusing. It’s also disturbing, because, as Andre says, it can happen to any of us: It is, simply and horribly, part of life.

This unusual play is directed with straightforward simplicity and much sensitivity by Roni Pinkovitz. Taking a cue from his protagonist and the disintegrating reality around him, the director ensures that the actors do not gush over with feelings but also that they are not afraid of them. The cast does excellent work with the clear and well-defined roles (Vekstein and Danino) and with the characters that are, in one form or another, figments of Andre’s imagination, or fragments of memories (Maor, Levy and Yarden Goz).

Sasson Gabai is Andre. We accompany him along the painful path from being in control of his life to entering a second childhood in an institution, crying for mommy. The play and the performance thrust us into his head as the reality around him crumbles, while Gabai the actor thrusts the audience into his fearful, struggling psyche, oscillating between sanity and madness. To view him is a powerful and important human experience for everyone. For we will all get old, like it or not. And always lurking is the frightening possibility, with which this play brings the viewers into direct contact: that we’ll lose it.

The next performances of “The Father” are on September 4–6, Friday at 21.30; Saturday at 18.00 and 21.00; Sunday at 20.30, at the Eretz Israel Museum, Ramat Aviv.