THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM - Manhattan Theatre Club
THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM is more an exhibition of acting craft and exhilarating lighting and set design than it is engaging drama. More precisely, THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM is an exemplar in how acting technique and technical production elements can make an undistinguished play appear theatrical.
From the pen of French playwright Florian Zeller, who specializes in the trials and tribulations of aging characters ( “The Father” and “The Mother”) - via an efficient translation from playwright and go-to translator Christopher Hampton - comes a blessedly brief, 80-minute play about an aging married couple, Andre (Jonathan Pryce) and Madeleine (Eileen Atkinson ). The play opens with daughter Anne (Amanda Drew) broaching with her cantankerous father Andre, once a famous writer, the sale of the country house outside Paris and move to a retirement community. Madeleine may have pre-deceased Andre, but when she appears it’s as if she’s in the present. The unusual narrative structure of HEIGHT OF THE STORM – shifting scenes that occurred both before and after Anne (may have) died, not in chronological order - is the most distinctive narrative structural feature. Plus, when scenes play from Andre’s POV, they are clouded by some state of dementia. Are events real, imagined, or a distortion of what might have happened?
Mr. Zeller's toying with the elusiveness of reality wears thin quickly. Plot elements, what there are, are non-original. Another sister Elise (Lisa Hare) arrives with a man (James Hillier) who’s both her lover and a prospective real estate agent. Which daughter was which parent’s favorite? How did Andre’s wife Madeleine manage a 50-year marriage with an intellectually prominent husband with a demanding ego? A woman shows up who says she had an affair with Andre. A husband with huge ego has an affair! Shocking, just shocking. Haven’t we’ve seen this play before? And, what about those mushrooms?
Acting lion Pryce and lioness Atkinson rise above the material plying techniques - as inconspicuously as the threadbare plot allows - they’ve honed to perfection in over 100 years of stage work between them. For Atkins, it’s not just stage presence, its carriage. She fleshes out Anne with the silent sigh, the raised eyebrow that never moves. Pryce’s technique gives his character more than it’s been written: the slightly shaking right arm suggesting a little stroke, or the shaky but still booming voice that reaches every corner of the theatre with paternal authority.
Besides these two on-stage stars, the off-stage stars are set designer Anthony Ward and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone. Andre and Madeleine’s country house is sumptuous. The fixed set is an enormous high-ceiling, country kitchen (Aga and all). Mr. Ward plays marvelous perspective tricks with placement of library and a picture-lined hallway off the kitchen to suggest a tired, old 18thC villa. The details - faded wall paint, smoke-stained ceiling, dust-trapped corners - suggest both years of wear from habitual routine and deferred maintenance. The dramatic scale of the set is complemented by Mr. Vanstone’s most delicate and luscious lighting. Sun streaming through kitchen windows, light fading away, suggests a passage of days into nights, seasons into seasons. Mr. Vanstone’s work has a romance all its own; its visual subtleties are breathtaking to observe. THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM is theatrical in effect, even if the play itself isn’t very good theatre at all.