French playwright Florian Zeller is fast becoming London’s cheri. Just as his well-received play “The Father,” due on Broadway in March with Frank Langella, let us into the mind of an Alzheimer’s sufferer, this companion piece, written four years earlier, seeks to give us a lens on clinical depression — specifically that of a woman adrift in middle-age. Despite a delicate performance from Gina McKee, the play hasn’t the elegance or the emotional surge of “The Father,” but it’s arguably the more important piece nonetheless. While we can only deal with dementia, it suggests we can act to prevent depression.
Anne’s depression has its roots in the societal factors of a world that doesn’t do enough to accommodate motherhood. Her children have moved out and moved on, too busy living their lives to call and catch up. Her husband (Richard Clothier, a still-boyish silver fox, perfectly cast) has his job and, she suspects, his secretary. She, meanwhile, sits on a sofa in slipper socks all day, useless, stacking cushions for the sake of something to do. “Nobody needs me anymore,” she pushes back when hubby suggests she find herself a hobby. Worse than that, she feels like she’s being replaced, even usurped, by her husband’s lovers and her son’s girlfriends. When she buys a youthful red dress, it drains the color right out of her.
At its plainest, “The Mother” is a portrait of a disease, and McKee finds both its rhythms and its erraticism. She idles about a white, featureless apartment, limp-limbed and lackluster and, with nothing to do, time makes itself felt. She talks as if the past 25 years have flown by, but the present drags on — a week since her son (William Postlethwaite) called, a day sat at home, two hours travel as a long way away. She’s like a prisoner marking her sentence in stone.
Again, Zeller uses form to let us into her head. Where the world of “The Father” was unstable, constantly reorganizing itself as the protagonist struggled to retain information, Anne’s is all too static, a life stuck on repeat. Entire scenes glitch back on themselves. Every day, the same questions when her husband gets home from work in the same suit, the same standoffs with her son and his girlfriend. Time skips, nothing happens, and the same flashpoints recur. Zeller shows that as life loses its meaning, so too does time. Towards the end of the day, all that’s left for Anne to do is set the breakfast table for tomorrow.
Out of that, Anne grows manic, spitting stark home truths one second, joking the next. It’s like she’s itching for something, anything, to occupy her days, and McKee dishevels quite brilliantly. As sleeping pills and white wine slur her words, she seems to slow down, almost to a stop. How else does one cope with an excess of time? At one point she stills, stock still, on the sofa, at an off-kilter angle, like a clock stopped at five past seven.
As with “The Father,” the effectiveness of this goes up a gear when you find a personal perspective on Lawrence Boswell’s production — when, for whatever reason, you see your own mother in Anne. It’s a piece that makes you pick up the phone, and perhaps do more than that — anything to alleviate the cycle of nothing that is Anne’s life. The real tragedy, however, is the way Zeller ensures Anne’s daughter hardly merits a mention. In fixating on her son, Anne seems to consign her own daughter to the same fate. It’s only a matter of time.