“Haunting” is a word critics overuse, but sometimes nothing else will do. Still, I’ll do my best to avoid it – after this review of The Height of the Storm, the thoughtful and engrossing new play by Florian Zeller, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, opening tonight at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway.
See, haunting here makes extra sense because the word conjures haunted, and serves well this play of death and ghost-like presences and what happens when the living can’t let go of their beloveds. With just a few shifts in direction and a horror movie score, Height could be one of the best haunted house tales since Nicolle Kidman got spooked by The Others.
But of course, it’s not that type of haunted. As directed by Jonathan Kent (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) and starring a made for each other Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, Height is indeed a haunting story of a family nearly undone by that most common and natural of horrors: the death of an aged parent, and the heart-smashing new reality for the one left behind.
Exactly which parent has died before the play begins, I won’t spoil. Zeller’s play, while not a traditional mystery, keeps up guessing as to which of the two elderly people (maybe both) we see onstage might be, well, not there, even as they talk together or with their two grown daughters and the occasional outsider or, indeed, combination thereof.
We meet André (Pryce) and daughter Anne (Amanda Drew) in the large kitchen of a gorgeous, high-ceiling, well-lived-in house (exquisitely rendered by scenic designer Anthony Ward) somewhere in the French countryside, the sort of house immediately considered “too big” (by the kids, at least) when the last parent standing is still standing.
We know something bad has happened, and not just the overnight storm that gives the play its literal meaning. One-sided talk of going through papers, Anne’s brink-of-tears unsuccessful attempts at conversation, her mention of real estate, even her very presence – she clearly hasn’t been back to her childhood home in some time – quickly tip us off: Mother has died, a realization that accounts for André dead-man-walking demeanor, if not his severe forgetfulness.
And then in walks mom (Atkins), along with Anne’s also-visiting sister Elise (Lisa O’Hare), demanding to know to whom Anne is talking. “I was delivering these flowers,” says Anne. “They’ve just been delivered. There’s no card with them.”
Flowers? So someone is dead, but it isn’t mother Madeleine (shout out to Proust), and the dimmed lights now on André (Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design is subtle and impressive throughout) suggest he’s the one prompting floral deliveries.
This conceit quite effectively fluffs up what is, at heart, a familiar story (one of the characters says as much). If Height seems a bit thin, it’s only in afterthought.
Nor does the ghostly conceit preclude Mother and Father from interacting with one another or with the entire family. More than one viewing of Height would be needed to make certain all concerned were playing by the play’s own within-the-play Shyamalan rules, or indeed whether such rules even exist, but you’ll likely let go of such existential nitpicking shortly into the play. Whether what we’re seeing is the dementia-caused confusion of one parent or another, or perhaps an experimental literary device intended as a Rashomon variation, makes little difference. As Height glides back and forth between duet and chorale, the music it makes is decidedly of a piece, full of heart and grace and delivered with precision.
The attention, naturally, will fall on the two marquee names, and Pryce and, especially, Atkins don’t disappoint. She plays the stronger of the two parents, the type families secretly hope will outlast the one who’d fall apart without the other. Whether arguing with an intrusive daughter (at one point letting fly an audience-shocking obscenity) or peeling mushrooms at a kitchen table (mushrooms, perhaps deadly, weave through the narrative in breadcrumb trailer fashion that may lead nowhere), Atkins commands the stage. In fact, she seems to be commanding every stage in the theater district, so grounded and sharp is her performance.
Pryce is her match, given the more traditionally “elderly” character, forgetful and shaky and terrified of both death and its alternative. His nervous repetitions, his fearful retreats, his bellowing outbursts do more than show a character in decline: Pryce’s performance somehow – and simultaneously – suggests the man André was.
But Height is no pas de deux. Drew and O’Hare offering vivid portrayals of the daughters who have reached the inescapable moment in life when the past fully and excruciatingly gives way to the future. Like Pryce, both Drew and O’Hare carry the younger versions of their characters within themselves (Atkins’ Madeleine seems somehow firmer, more unmovable, as if the old woman we meet has been ever thus. The contrast with the others is fascinating to watch).
As the outsiders, James Hillier plays the latest boyfriend of Elise, a vaguely smarmy dude who may or may not be a real estate agent with designs on the soon-to-be vacant house.
Even more questions are raised by the appearance of a woman (wonderfully played by Lucy Cohu) whose vaguely ’50-style cocktail dress and Margo Channing hairstyle almost but not for sure suggests she’s as much memory as visitor. Here is where Zeller’s love of Pinter comes most to the fore, as this strange character credited as “The Woman” speaks in riddles and assumptions, leaving the other characters (and the audience) with the sort of intriguing half-there recall that comes when paging through a grandparent’s photo album. Cohu’s Woman might be an old friend of André, perhaps a former lover, maybe an extramarital fling, maybe even the mother of his illegitimate son. Then again, maybe she’s the real estate agent, come to charm the old man into moving to a nursing home.
Each possibility dances through our minds without resolution, unless perhaps, we settle on the notion that she’s any and all of them, the fears, longings, regrets and secrets of a couple facing a terribly sad end after 50 years together, the past, both terrifying and lovely, come calling one final time.
The Height Of The Storm runs through Sunday, Nov. 24, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.