Theater for the New City is presenting a new translation by Robert Greer of August Strindberg’s The Father. Directed with Shakespearean grit and sweep by Greer, the founder of the August Strindberg Rep, as part of TNC’s DreamUp Festival 2019, the production illuminates both the strengths and the weaknesses of this 1887 play by the Swedish pioneer of “realist” theater.
On the simplest level, The Father is a tale of a man driven mad by his scheming wife. Interpretations over the decades have swung between sympathy for the Captain (Adolph) – representing the “old guard” of male dominance – and his wife Laura, an avatar of frustrated womanhood who is forced to exercise power, or what’s today called “agency,” in any sly way she can.
The proximate cause of the couple’s climactic battle of the sexes is the future of their sweet daughter Bertha (a pointed and fulsome performance by Bailey Newman). The Captain (Brad Fryman) wants to send her from their isolated country manor to town to learn to be a teacher, for two reasons. He wants her to be exposed to people who share his freethinking ways. And he wants her to be able to support herself if she doesn’t marry. The plan aligns more closely with Bertha’s own wishes than Laura’s desire for the teenager to stay at home and study art, for which she has shown talent.
It’s ironic that Adolph, with his firm belief in male hegemony, is the one who wants his daughter to be self-sufficient. That’s one of the confounding factors that make this power struggle far from a straightforward one.
The main problem Greer and Fryman can’t overcome is the rapidity of Adolph’s collapse. Though volatile and anxious, he seems fully sane in his early scene with his brother-in-law the Pastor (an excellent Toby Miller). In just a few scenes over two days, goaded by Laura’s calculated (and false) implication that he’s not Bertha’s father, he descends into violence and hysteria. It doesn’t help that the critical violent act takes place offstage. When the characters suddenly start talking about it, our heads spin at the revelation of what has occurred.
In the early going, Fryman’s portrayal makes the Captain thoroughly convincing, and we sympathize with him despite his sexism. Then he opens the floodgates of frustrated paranoia. It’s a breakdown that’s somehow both a thrill to behold and an uncomfortable exercise in scenery chewing.
In utter contrast, Natalie Menna’s Laura hews to a single tight dimension throughout. Whatever empathy Strindberg may have wanted to elicit from the audience, we don’t feel it for Laura at all. Menna skillfully depicts a wily calm, but little else.
A noteworthy performance come from Jo Vetter as Margaret, Adolph’s onetime nurse, now an aged housemaid who still babies the willing Captain and is the only person in his household he feels he can trust. Together with Bertha, to whom she acts like a loving grandmother, Margaret pulls down the vast spaces of the set into a more comfortable human habitat – though ultimately to no avail.
Another irony: It’s Margaret who ends up having to trick Adolph into the straitjacket in which he ends his useful life. The old-fashioned confinement is one of the period details that add to the play’s historical interest. The others include Adolph’s radical freethinking atheism (contrasting with Margaret’s piety), his spectroscopic study of meteorites looking for signs of life, and the communion with “spirits” (via automatic writing) that Bertha’s real, not-so-warm grandmother forces her to engage in.
The play’s themes certainly do speak to today’s issues, especially the male-female dynamic. The new translation feels spot-on – dignified but naturalistic, like the original. Still, the production only partially engages, in part because of uneven performances, and in part simply because of the structure of the story. It runs through Sept. 2.