By Lucy Komisar
The set is a French country house kitchen, maybe an hour from Paris. Out the windows, greenery. Through a doorway you see a room thick with bookshelves, the home of an intellectual.
What happens to the partner of a 50-year marriage living without the other? What if the husband André dies and the wife Madeleine survives? What if the wife dies? What would each do? How would each cope? How would their children, in this case grown daughters, react?
At first French playwright Florian Zeller’s play is confusing. It‘s not clear who has died and who survived. What seems reality segues into fantasy. Then reality shifts. You see the couple together, and suddenly the light on one of them dims and the character is blacked out. Meaning that person is gone.
Still, this often gripping play is anchored firmly in the excellent acting of Jonathan Pryce as André and Eileen Atkins as Madeleine, the elderly couple. Director Jonathan Kent establishes a realism – ironic in this case – that is difficult to challenge.
Daughter Anne (Amanda Drew) is going through father André‘s papers. He is/was a writer and his editor wants to bring out a book of unpublished writing. Is he dead? But Anne talks to him about his diary, which she has found. It reveals an early affair. She knows it shouldn‘t be published.
There is also a suggestion that he is losing his memory. He screams, rages, seems a bit crazy. She says that he can‘t live on his own. They need to sell the house and move him to a residence. Pryce gives a vivid, moving performance.
But the light dims on him. Is it a posthumous publication?
Wife Madeleine returns from shopping in town. She notes that people have stopped her in the street; we think that must be about André‘s death. She deposits her marketing on the counter.
Then the two are together. Madeleine tells him she has met a woman in the market who says she knew André many years ago, and she has invited her to tea. André is furious. Who is that woman? Is she part of a secret past?
Eileen Atkins plays Madeleine strong, the rock of the family, but also deliberately flat.
It‘s partly a memory play. But whose memory? You try to follow the clues. Scenes of Madeleine coming home with mushrooms to cook for lunch are repeated.
Madeleine goes out to the vegetable garden. André worries when she doesn‘t immediately return.
Madeleine, who says she was the stronger one in the marriage, seems quite able to cope. André is more desperate, angry.
I spent most of the play trying to figure out what was truth and what was memory. Who had died? It takes a while, almost to the end, to figure out the device. Then we know who died. And we realize that the story is the heart-tugging sorrow of the partner left behind. But more than that, the importance of memories.
“The Height of the Storm.” Written by Florian Zeller, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, directed by Jonathan Kent. Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th St, New York City. 212-239-6210 or 800-543-4835. Opened Sept 24, 2019, closes Nov 24, 2019. Running time 90 min. 9/28/19. Also on NY Theatre Wire.