The heart breaks for the aged married couple who refuse to be separated, even after one of them dies. The only question is: Which one?
In this Manhattan Theatre Club production of Florian Zeller’s “The Height of the Storm,” Jonathan Pryce gives an achingly sensitive performance as Andre, possibly “the greatest writer of his generation.” (We also met a man named Andre in the French playwright’s previous drama, “The Father,” a formidable figure as played on Broadway in 2016 by Frank Langella.) Here, Andre is a recent widower unable to cope with — or even bear to acknowledge — the death of his beloved wife, Madeleine, endowed with down-to-earth grace and emotional depth by the great Eileen Atkins.
At other times in Zeller’s mind-bending existential landscape, we perceive Andre as an uneasy ghost who refuses to depart this earthly plane and leave his surviving wife behind — except for those times when he seems very much alive, but refuses to accept the recent death of his wife. In Pryce’s quicksilver performance, Andre is living on the outer edge of dementia — except for those moments of lucidity when he’s not.
Dizzy yet? The planes of reality and memory, death and living-death continue to shift throughout the too-brief 80-minute play, which would surely benefit from richer content and enhanced context.
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In Atkins’ pristine performance, Madeleine is a brisk, lovingly nurturing helpmate, the ideal partner for a brilliant but querulous genius who would tax any woman’s patience. In an early scene, when Andre appears to be very much alive but rapidly losing touch with reality, we know that Madeleine will rush in and save him, if it weren’t for the disconcerting suggestion that she might be dead.
“There must be some sense to all this!” Andre howls. “Isn’t there?” Personally, I’d forget looking for logic and just relish the beauty of the production.
Director Jonathan Kent (“Faith Healer,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”) has kept a firm hand on Christopher Hampton’s fluid translation of Zeller’s abstract, Pinteresque text – no fuss, no muss, no cheesy effects. Anthony Ward’s set of a bourgeois French home appears solid, until Hugh Vanstone’s lighting effects start casting long shadows that transform it into a brooding domestic study by one of the Dutch masters. And in his own subtle way, sound designer Paul Groothuis contributes ambient echoes of a real world outside these fragmenting walls.
The slender plot, such as it is, involves the usual crises following the death of a parent. Do we sell the house? What’s to become of Dad and/or Mom? How can we salvage Dad’s valuable unpublished work? Who’s going to take all these books? These are some of the questions pondered by the couple’s two grown children, loving Anne (Amanda Drew) and self-centered Elise (Lisa O’Hare). They are, of course, the eternal questions whenever a parent dies, and these two siblings are no better equipped to deal with them than any of the rest of us.
But if we learn nothing about bearing up under grief from these hapless sisters, we can still treasure two superb performances from two great actors.