Two Master Actors Demonstrate Their Craft in “The Height of the Storm”

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Height of the storm

By Karen Isaacs

Seeing Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce on stage together in The Height of the Storm is watching master craftsmen work. I wouldn’t care what the play was about; I want to marvel at their skills.

But the play, now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Nov. 17 is worthy of their talents.

Some may find the story confusing; others may find it depressing. Because it deals what many people as the age accept as their worse nightmare: the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s. I thoroughly enjoyed untangling the plot which includes flashbacks, memories, assumed realities and reality.

As in The Father which featured a stellar performance by another master – Frank Langella – Christopher Hampton’s translation of Florian Zeller’s play is told through the eyes of the person whose mind is deteriorating.

We meet André (Pryce) looking out the window of his kitchen. He’s joined by his daughter, Anne, who wants to continue a prior conversation: the need to sell the house and for him to relocate to a different type of living situation. She is obviously concerned that since her mother died, he is no longer able to live alone in the isolated house.

With that set up, you might think you know where the play is going; but there are some twists and turns that may confuse you.

In the next scene, you see Madeleine (Atkins) in the same kitchen going about routine activities and soon joined by Anne. Were you mistaken about who had died? Is Madeleine the surviving spouse? It takes another scene before you realize that Madeleine’s appearances are memories of either André’s or of the daughters.

Anne is joined by the other sister, Élise and we see the dynamic between the two. During the course of the play’s five scenes, we see the world through André’s eyes. When a woman appears, we are left wondering who she really is. Is she a former mistress? Just a nosy neighbor? She claims to know him but is that really true. The same is true when “the man” appears. At first he is obviously Élise’s new lover but he also seems to be the real estate agent that has been invited to look at the house for its probable sale.

What was particularly enjoyable was the acting by Atkins and Pryce. These two are able to create fully rounded characters and show subtle changes in personality and emotions with barely a movement. They are a joy to see on stage. The others in the cast, certainly keep up with them, particularly Amanda Drew as Anne and Lisa O’Hare as Élise. O’Hare is the only member of the cast, who did not do the show in London.

While you may be confused and even wonder if it is necessary for the story to be told this way, you will find much to engage you. The symbolism of the title may be a bit obvious, but the play includes many wonderful lines about aging, memories and secrets and even understanding are words. It was a joy to read the script and hear those lines once more.

Anthony Ward’s scenic design gives us an older home that has been a comfortable family home. The lighting by Hugh Vanstone helps us identify who is present and who is imaginary in any given scene. Paul Groothius’ sound design and the original music by Gary Yershon establishes the mood.

Jonathan Kent has directed the play in a way that kept me totally engaged; not just for the joy of the acting of Atkins and Pryce but for the way it moved.

The Height of the Storm may challenge you to follow the ins and outs of memories and realities, but it is so worth it for both the performances and the wonderful script.

It runs through Nov. 17. For tickets visit, Telecharge.

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