The mind is a labyrinth that has been described as unknowable. Medical science has taken great strides, but we are still looking into the abyss when we try to understand how to communicate with those who appear insensate in a coma, or those whose brains and minds have been ravaged by Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. How do we break through so that we understand them, so that they understand us? Communication and connection between a father who has Alzheimer’s and is lost in time and space, and a son, estranged from him for 15 years, are the basis for the fascinating production In My Father’s Words currently at 59E59 Theaters as part of its Brits Off Broadway season.
This is a wonderful play for its depth, beauty and poetic symmetry. Written by Justin Young and directed by Philip Howard, In My Father’s Words has a spiral structure, winding backward and forward in time to recall the journey of the father and son as they attempt to understand one another and work through their own personal conflicts. Each is desperately dependent upon the other though they are loath to recognize and admit this.
The play abounds in ironies. Don (an amazing portrayal by Angus Peter Campbell), and Lou (Garry Collins in a beautifully rendered counterpoint), have been blind to each others’ true identity for the duration of their relationship, except perhaps when Lou was a child. It was then that an unspoken understanding and love abided, though neither was able to articulate it clearly. Now that Don has dementia, that time has been forever lost, overthrown by decades of irreconcilability and the side effects of anger and aggression.
Lou is cerebral, erudite and emotionally unreachable. During the course of the play we discover that his unreconciled conflict with his father has prompted him to repeat the pattern in his own life. He is estranged from his own son after his divorce and has not seen him in a long while. Lou is disconnected from himself and is in effect at war with his past, which the playwright cleverly elucidates in the play’s first act.
In parallel with his son, Don has lived a fragmented life in increasing isolation and despair after the death of his wife. The house which Don has built with his own hands on the shores of Lake Ontario is the place where Lou was raised until he went to college. Lou is loath to spend time there for it represents a painful history of failed relationships, devastation and loss, all of which is beautifully reflected by the set design.
In the chaos of the living room we see Don’s deterioration. The home has become a junk heap, with boxes, an old TV, a chair and other items in scattered disarray as if the plates, boxes, etc. had been left where they were dropped and then forgotten about. Each suggests a previous, ordered arrangement and function, when purpose and meaning filled Don’s life; now, all is haphazard, all is a confusion that reflects the deterioration of Don’s mind and spirit. Into this chaos of mind and matter Lou has come; the chaos upsets and deranges his own sense of order. In actuality, Young portrays this as good for Lou; it is a derangement which brings change.
Though Don and Lou, father and son, are as disparate as one could imagine strangers might be, the playwright shows that they are similar in their interior lives, their conflicts, their loneliness, and their stubborn refusal to improve or make things better for themselves. Though the connection they have is one of blood, it is diffuse. The memories for each have faded: Don’s through dementia, Lou’s through intentional obliteration. The bonds have been broken and each has retreated into a remote, isolated world. Don’s condition is manifested externally with his dementia. Lou’s condition is internal and his hard outer shell will not allow him to realize or admit he has become alienated from himself.
Thus, Young has made Don and Lou mirror images of one another emotionally. Both are in conflict, and like the father-son relationship between Odysseus and Telemachus that Lou teaches – he’s a classics professor – from Homer’s Odyssey, Young has set adrift the characters Lou and Don; they are far from each other, separated by a sea of pain. The playwright has added the irony that the only way this father and son will be directed back together is for them to work through their individual pain to heal the rift. But that takes communicating with one another. And communication is rendered impossible by Don’s dementia and Lou’s anger and resentment toward his father and himself.
Only a catalyst, which comes in the shape of caretaker Flora (Muireann Kelly provides candid warmth in perfect contrast to the two men), will be able to initiate any forward momentum in the men’s ability to communicate. Only she can provoke a renewed relationship of mutual respect and understanding. Flora, through an acute, lively awareness and intuitive prescience, helps Lou and Don retrieve the past, unearth what was lost that will benefit them, and rekindle the spark that is yearning to be ignited so that they can move on in peace.
Flora’s presence is an imperative. Police found Don wandering the streets of Toronto. Now Lou must live with his father and care for him, somehow managing his time between “babysitting,” his career, and other responsibilities. While Lou is waiting for a nursing care residence for Don, he hires Flora. It is one of the play’s ironies that Lou doesn’t presume she is very qualified, when she is the one indispensable person who will help restore the spirit of family for Don and Lou.
During Lou’s conversations with Flora we learn the backstory between father and son. Lou feels comfortable with Flora discussing his endeavors translating Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The playwright uses the father/son relationship of Odysseus and Telemachus as a brilliant analogical parallel to the estranged journey of Lou and Don. Odysseus and Telemachus have been separated by the Trojan War and the sea of time; Lou and Don have been estranged by their own personal conflicts and the watery displacements of dementia’s forgetfulness. The playwright threads the analogy through to the end of the play in a perfect alignment.
With good-natured and canny persistence, Flora eventually is able to break through Lou’s hard, abrupt, standoffish shell. Throughout Act II, Lou gradually releases and is able to confront inner wounds, though initially he is blind to his misery and is too irascible to acknowledge any emotional progress he is making. One of the key themes in the play is that honest communication can bring wellness. With Flora Lou is allowed to be open, and he begins to heal and understand his own place and identity in this final return when he must live with his father just when Don needs him most.
Flora also stirs up the emotional context for Don to get in touch with himself and the vitality of his past. She perceives Don has been using Gaelic words. She alone recognizes this because Lou never was aware of his father’s true heritage. Flora converses with Don in Gaelic, which stimulates him. He remembers events long forgotten. The Gaelic words help him reconnect with his Scottish heritage and he rediscovers the importance of his identity, which had faded with disuse when he emigrated to the U.S. and adopted another culture and language.
Flora discusses the discovery with Lou. Through these exchanges Lou gains another perspective of his father and his own heritage, which strengthens his sense of place in the world. Through Flora’s influence and encouragement, Lou begins to learn Gaelic to better understand Don. Flora’s presence electrifies the emotional resonances between father and son. As Lou learns Gaelic and attempts to speak to Don guided by Flora, this reconciliation prompts Lou to expiate past hurts. He begins to put aside his bitterness and forgive his mistakes in his relationship with his father and others, the most vital one being with his own son whom he had put aside after his divorce.
Through the communication symbolism, we are apprised of a number of themes. In the move from one culture to another, much is lost and one becomes alienated from one’s original self. This happened to Don when he emigrated to America. Unless the heritage and language are passed to the next generation, the disassociation filters into the familial relationships as has happened in his relationship with Lou.
Flora bridges the canyon in Don’s mind when she speaks Gaelic back to him. He is connected once more with himself and what he lost, and the light of understanding beams into his mind. Though it is terribly sad that this didn’t happen sooner, the estrangement between father and son dissipates in the time Lou and Don have left together. More importantly, the estrangement of Lou from his son will be mended as we learn toward the play’s end.
In My Father’s Words reveals the importance of the language of heritage and the power of communication to heal. With the poetic beauty of revisiting an ancient father/son estrangement, the playwright cleverly spins a new story giving it a modern twist, helped by fine direction, music, and creative set design, particularly the screen projections which suggest that life comes from and returns to the sea, that the mind is a watery, fragile medium and our language that expresses that medium is ever fluid, ever changing and sometimes evanescent. But when we are able to connect our nascent language with our identity, there will never be loss.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0071748156][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0140268863][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00005N913]