The Review: Broadway’s The Height of the Storm
Violins lull us into the dreamlike vision of one of my many moments of West End regret whenever I travel to London for a theatre week. I never can find the time to see all that I want to, so I found myself standing outside the Wyndham Theatre where The Height of the Storm was playing the last time I was there, trying my best to figure out a way to find the time to see this new exploration. Written by the incomparable Florian Zeller, with a beautiful translation by Christopher Hampton, this mindful meditation on the crumbling connections within a family pulled at me on that London street corner. Hampton, having translated most of Florian’s hurricane of good plays; The Father, The Mother, and The Son, finds the poetic soul inside the fog of despair and forgetfulness, just like he did the stunning Le Père a few years ago at the Manhattan Theater Club. All seem to delve into the same ripe and arresting fruit that surround the decimation of reason and thought within a fractured mind. Le Mère aimed its attention on a woman’s mind twisting before our very eyes, but like The Father, The Height… draws the eye of the hurricane directly to the harrowing effects of Alzheimer’s and death, spiraling up and exaggerated by grief and loss, not just of the man, but also the family that surrounds him.
The wind and the rain of this storm rips in at our “ability to love one another to the end“, soaking us in what is one of the most touching and engaging creations of family, death, and longing around. “People are dead, but not always“, they say, and Jonathan Pryce (London/Broadway’s Comedians, Miss Siagon) playing “not the most courageous man” André, fluctuates between seeing and believing in that very state. He’s been married to the gorgeously present Madeleine, portrayed with a compassionate grace by the stellar Eileen Atkins (MTC/Broadway’s Doubt, Netflix’s ‘The Crown’) for half a century, and with these two dynamic actors at the helm, the connection and bond are visceral and undeniable. They breath life and compassion into every moment and every plane of emotional connection. “Madeleine, I’m here, look at me!“, and how can we not, as she is the most alive person on that stage, chopping and engaging with earthbound glee.
As directed with a cunning force by Jonathan Kent (Broadway’s Long Day’s Journey…), the pathway along the riverbank of one’s disintegrating mind is seen as a dangerous and confusing journey, littered with devastating roots and memories to slip and fall to our deaths. It’s a grey windy dreamscape or a torrential nightmare that one may never wake from, as well as finding the way to being both poetic and heartbreakingly engaging. Anne, the serious daughter, played strongly by Amanda Drew (RSC’s Eastward Ho!) sinks into the web, and struggles to understand the situation, especially surrounding The Woman, dynamically portrayed by Lucy Cohu (Almeida’s A Delicate Balance). The other daughter, Élise, played with an authentic force by Lisa O’Hare (Encores’ Me and My Girl), has her own burden to weather, namely in the form of The Man, beautifully embodied by James Hillier (Royal Court’s Torn). The others add to the weight drama, but the true beauty lies in the couple, and in the way they look at each other.
On a masterful set of tilted misty vision by scenic and costume designer Anthony Ward (West End/Broadway’s Mary Stuart), with exacting and carefully orchestrated lighting by Hugh Vanstone (Broadway’s Hillary and Clinton), exemplary sound design by Paul Groothius (NT’s Follies), and stunningly compelling original music by Gary Yershon (West End/Broadway’s The Norman Conquests), the multi-layered structure is solidly in place, exacting out a complicated creation that one needs to lean in to fully stay with. This isn’t a simplistic piece of theatre, entertaining one’s mind on a Friday night, but a compelling web of inter-connective neuron pathways converging and exploding with quiet intensity right before us. The actors make it look easy, but seeing them work is a gift that should not be forgotten. It’s an impossible promise that is broken, but a connection that remains solidly intact, and it will resonate like lightning on a far off horizon long into the stormy night. We can only stand and stare, honoring the work and their craftsmanship.