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Theatre in Review: In My Father's Words (Brits Off Broadway/59E59)

Garry Collins, Muireann Kelly. Photo: Carol Rosegg

In My Father's Words is both the story of a fractured family and a dramatic Tower of Babel; nearly everybody in it needs a translator to be understood. It's a striking metaphor for the problems of loving, of getting past the prisons of our own perceptions and understanding another -- and one can only wish it was contained in a better play.

The elderly Don, a retired, widowed paper mill worker and a victim of dementia, is found in his cabin on Lake Ontario, raving and incapable of taking care of himself, by his son, Louis. Louis is less than sympathetic; a classics professor -- "I'm generally regarded as one of the top Homer scholars in North America," he says, an admission that reveals more than he intends -- he believes he has better things to do than look after Don, who is a virtual stranger. Unable to book Don directly into an assisted living facility -- "With any luck, someone will die soon," he says, unaware of how that sounds -- Louis unwillingly settles for a temporary arrangement with a cheerful, capable matron named Flora: She will tend to Don during the day, and Louis, unhappily, will see to him at night. Things do not get off to a solid start. "I can tell how close you are," Flora says. "We haven't spoken in 15 years," replies Don.

It is Flora who first notices that when Don appears to be talking nonsense syllables he is, in fact, speaking in a rather fluent Scottish Gaelic. Louis cannot credit this: How could his father, who used English only all his life, be versed in such a rare language? This revelation opens a window onto Don's past, which turns out to be far more complicated and eventful than his son ever imagined. Flora, who grew up with Gaelic-speaking parents, draws Don out during his more lucid moments, spinning a family history that leaves Louis reeling in disbelief.

As it happens, this is not the only aspect of Louis' life that has been lost in translation. He spends his nights with Don agonizing over his translation of The Odyssey, which is two years late and about ten percent completed. (Louis, it must be said, has a very understanding publisher.) When writing, he shuts out the world with a large pair of headphones, listening to Glenn Gould play the Brandenburg Concertos as he seeks the words that will make Homer intelligible in contemporary English. More and more, Louis would like to shut out the world altogether: He finds his lectures falling flat in front of bored undergraduates who don't want to hear about a dead language. His personal life is nonexistent: He was married to a Qu├ębecois woman, but their relationship quickly foundered, and he hasn't seen his son in years. She, of course, was fluent in French; Louis speaks it a little, he notes, but not enough to communicate with nuance.

Actually, nuance is something that the playwright, Justin Young, doesn't do, either. Despite its alluring linguistic surface -- not to mention the projections by Iso and Emlyn Firth, in which dialogue in several languages fades in and out in dreamlike fashion -- In My Father's Words is a standard daddy-issues drama. (Really, it's a textbook Freudian case; Louis slept with his mother until Don returned from the war, at which point the boy was put to bed on his own and locked up. Things went downhill from there.) Louis is the classic unloved son -- a solitary, neurotic fussbudget brimming with resentments. As always seems to be the case with working class characters in this sort of play, Flora is gifted with vast reserves of emotional wisdom and an innate scorn for those who put much store by book learning. Early on, Don asks about her education, and she responds, "Everyone's so obsessed these days with diplomas, right?"

Will Louis come to an understanding with Don? Will he forgive his father? Will he and Flora let their hair down for a long night of truth-telling? (Since the play is set in Canada, Young nicely arranges a massive storm, leaving them snowed in with nothing to do but tipple and bare their souls.) Will Don crack The Odyssey and make a stab at being a father at last? As Flora might note, you don't need a degree in dramaturgy to know the answers to these questions.

At least Philip Howard has directed his three-person cast gracefully, making In My Father's Words easy to take if less the revelatory. Angus Peter Campbell's Don is convincingly slipping away into that good night, seizing our attention during outbursts that reveal crucial moments from his remote youth. Garry Collins captures Louis in all his sad, pretentious loneliness; he is especially effective when staring at a line he has just written, then tearing up the page, silently and bitterly acknowledging that he isn't equal to the task he has set for himself. Muireann Kelly is a warm and feisty presence as Flora, even when being made to say lines like "You would rather translate Homer than your own father?"

In addition, Fiona Watt's set, which renders Don's house as a piece of driftwood, sharply bisecting the stage, is striking, and her period costumes -- the play is set in 1992 -- are suitable for all three characters. Grant Anderson's lighting sensitively reshapes the stage from scene to scene, working with the projections, which include images of water and a view of Lake Ontario.

There's enough intelligence at work in In My Father's Words that one feels genuine dismay when it falls back on family-drama formulas. Still, the passages in Gaelic, by Iain Finlay MacLeod make a distinctive music of their own. This is a play that revels in the sheer beauty of words; unfortunately, it is also a little fond of clich├ęs. -- David Barbour


(11 June 2015)

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