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Height of the Storm  - Elizabeth Ahlfors

Height of the Storm
Eileen Atkins as Madeleine and Jonathan Pryce as André in The Height of the Storm.   Photo Joan Marcus

Height of the Storm

The Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Preview: Sept. 06, 2019. Opening: Sep 24, 2019, Closing: Nov.24, 2019 (extended)
Time: One hour and 20 minutes. 
Playwright: Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton.
Directed by: Jonathan Kent

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Says French playwright, Florian Zeller about The Height of the Storm, “It is a play about love, about the very nature of love, about a couple who has been living 50 years together.  I wanted to explore that very deep relationship together, when you don’t know any more who you are if it is without her, or without him.”  In a compact 80 minutes, the Manhattan Theatre Club presents, Zeller’s elusive mind puzzle at the Friedman Theatre, challenging the audience with questions, not answers.

Translated from the French by Christopher Hammond, the play targets the relationship between author, Andre (Jonathan Pryce), who is edging in and out of dementia, and his devoted wife, Madeleine (Eileen Atkins).  Their long life together was in a comfortable, book-filled country house with a garden where Madeleine grew vegetables and nurtured Andre who wrote acclaimed books.

Recently, one of them died, but which one? Their two grown daughters have returned home to take care of necessary affairs and support the remaining parent.  First it seems that it is Madeleine who died, since the play opens on the morning after a storm, as Andre stands alone staring out of the kitchen window. His daughter, Anne (Amanda Drew), enters holding some papers and obviously distracted, trying to convince her father.  “It’s just common sense, Dad. You can’t live here on your own.”  He ignores her and demands his breakfast.

When they are interrupted by the delivery of a bouquet of flowers, they notice there is no card, and the question about who sent the flowers reappears throughout the show and once again at the end.

Suddenly the door opens and Madeleine walks in, home from shopping with her other daughter, Elise (Lisa O’Hare).  So perhaps it is Andre who is dead.  Queries lead to more bewilderment, spiraling around mortality, memories, today and yesterday.  Reality and remembrances intermingle with Andre and Madeleine talking together at times yet at other moments, one might slide into the shadows.  Jonathan Kent (A Long Day’s Journey Into Night) directed love and loss with a smooth hand, ghosts of a longtime partner appearing and fading, leaving a storm of confusion and anguish.

 “You think people are dead, but it’s not always the case,” comments Andre at one point, regarding someone else entirely.   

Pryce (Miss Saigon) and Atkins (Upstairs, Downstairs) are extraordinary actors in powerful portrayals.  Pryce is brilliant as the writer who slips in and out of reality, battling with outbursts yet palpable in his obvious love and heartbreaking need for Madeleine. “What would I do? What would I do without you?” 

 Atkins is noteworthy as Madeleine, gracious and astute dealing with Andre’s querulous inner battles.  She smiles tenderly.  “I’ll always be here. Don’t worry. I’m not going to let you down.”

 If Andre is the bolder, more imposing role, Atkins’ intensity and wry facial expressions, her calm countenance, forms the subtext of their relationship.  As Anne comments to her mother, “It’s not very common, if you think about it. The ability to love one another to the end.”  This is something neither daughter finds easily.  Anne’s sister is far more self-centered, but both are affected by their parents’ marriage, and neither finds a comparable love.

Two dubious characters, called The Woman (Lucy Cohu) and The Man (James Hillier) are added, although they have little real purpose. The Man may offer the possibility of arranging a move to another home.  The Woman hints of a warm but faded long-ago relationship with Andre, hinting of a possible romantic fling that Andre has tucked away in the corners of his mind. Then again, The Woman and The Man may have different purposes completely.

Anthony Ward (Mary Stuart) designed the house with details distinctively lighted by Hugh Vanstone’s imaginative ideas.   Ward also designed  everyday costumes for each of the characters, adding an extra snap of stylishness to sister Elise.  Most captivating, I found,  is the arrangement of branches through which we watch a pensive Andre staring out the window as if he is searching through the cobweb of memory.

 Zeller has written plays about The Father, winning a Tony Award for Frank Langella playing another Andre battling dementia and The Mother, off-Broadway with Isabelle Huppert, dealing with anxiety and aging.  A third play, The Son, deals with adolescent depression, is playing on the West End.

It's difficult to shake the stirring emotional impact of this couple’s life-long union, their resistance to never parting, their dizzying recollections, the shocks of reality, and the ghost of an implacable bond lasting even after death.

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