New York City Theater
"The Height of the Storm"
Jonathan Pryce gives a titanic, “King Lear”-level performance in Florian Zeller’s soulful “The Height of the Storm,” translated from the French by Christopher Hampton. Co-starring another great British actor, Eileen Atkins, this is an enigmatic mystery wrapped in an eternal love story.
We first see Pryce immobile in a chair, his face ghostly, staring into some unknown abyss. He’s André, recently widowed. Or is he? Soon, Madeleine, his supposedly deceased wife, enters. Is it he who has died?
Dressed casually, she busies herself in the kitchen (lived-in set and costumes by Anthony Ward), conversing with her daughters. Or are these talks mere memories of past conversations?
Amid chatter of mushrooms and salads, of gardens and manuscripts (he’s an author), loss is palpable. It’s a loss of memory, too, as it was in Zeller’s “The Father” and “The Mother,” both also dealing with dementia. Is forgetting the negative as well as the positive a blessing or a curse, pleasant or painful?
Not much actually happens in the play, yet the evening is compelling and ultimately poignant. After all, what survives? In the end, we’re told, the ducks fly away, the quotidian is forgotten and only feelings remain. Indeed, the final tableau sums up the unsolvable puzzle. “People who try to understand things,” says Andre, “they’re morons.”
Pryce’s performance is so detailed it fairly jumps into the audience. From the hand tremors to the booming voice to the muddled mind, it’s a stunning portrait of someone who’s lost control. Atkins, on the other hand, is steadfast, practical and very much in command. Concentrating on one task at a time, she steers the household’s course with efficiency and humor.
With Amanda Drew and Lisa O’Hare as the daughters, as well as Lucy Cohu and James Hillier, identified only as The Woman and The Man, the play withholds information. It’s purposely obfuscating. As is memory.
Joanathan Kent’s direction is straightforward and unwinking, giving nothing away. Only Hugh Vanstone’s lighting guides us to other worlds. Kent, Vanstone and the characters seem to reach us beyond life, telling us to accept whatever there is. Life without love may be meaningless yet, even with it, we can’t be absolutely sure of much.
What we can be sure of, however, are the towering achievements of Pryce and Atkins, actors who remind us of the connective tissue that binds us all.
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 25, 2019