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Christopher Lloyd spirals into despair in The Father

THE FATHER

Written by August Strindberg.

Starring Christopher Lloyd, Candy

Buckley, Bronia Stefan Wheeler, Daria

Martel, and Dean Harrison.

At the American Repertory Theatre,

through Sunday, March 18.

By ELIZABETH WILLIAMS

WITH THE FATHER, The American Repertory Theatre once again shows its inimitable excellence in the selection and production of each season's material. The Father is a stellar performance in all respects -- acting, sets, lighting and music.

Written by August Strindberg, a Swedish contemporary of Ibsen, The Father treats an issue not quite in vogue today. The play is a challenging piece for modern viewers: In it Strindberg portrays the male, not the female, as the persecuted sex.

The Father is about an army captain's conflict with his wife over where to send his daughter to school. He is an arrogant, intelligent man who pursues meteorologic research at home and loves his daughter Bertha deeply. He is vehemently against letting his wife have her own way because he feels she wants her own way all the time, which is driving him crazy. Resorting to the Swedish law which states that the father is the head of the household and has legal control of the child, he demands Bertha be sent to school in town and not stay in the country as her mother wishes. Laura, in return, questions his position as father.

This brings up the central issue of the play: the question of fatherhood. The captain realizes that a man can never be sure he is the father of his child. He sees that only the woman can know a child is truly hers. This gives women, in his eyes, an ultimate power, for they can take away from a man his only assurance of an afterlife -- his progeny.

Here begins the whirlpool of the captain's frenzied quest to understand women, fatherhood, and the battle of the sexes for power. Laura, having planted the seed of doubt in her husband's mind, continues her quest for power over her daughter's future by plotting to drive her husband insane. She uses a young doctor who is staying with the family to verify the captain's condition so she can have him put away. Laura stops at nothing to gain her ends, frustrating her husband purposefully, interfering with his work and spreading rumors about his mental condition.

As the captain spirals downward into despair and anger, he feels that only in woman-as-mother can he find comfort and sympathy. This he finds with the old nurse and, briefly, in a revealing scene with his wife. However, with woman-as-lover he sees only pain and strife.

The play is a tug of war between two people for both a man's mind and his daughter. It hurtles to a climax which is heightened by the haunting music of Philip Glass and with surrealistic lighting.

The acting of Christopher Lloyd as the captain was flawless. He effectively brought out both the sensitivity and arrogance of the character. Candy Buckley played the conniving wife with skill, showing her heartlessness. The old nurse was realistically and sympathetically played by Bronia Stefan Wheeler.

The actors playing the doctor and the daughter were not as convincing. As the daughter, Daria Martel seemed less of a character and more merely a prop for her parents' feud. Dean Harrison played the doctor stiffly -- perhaps this was because he was the understudy filling in.

Strindberg's frustration and confusion with women and women's rights comes through with power and aggression in ART's production of the play. The conflicts he shows can be found to be almost autobiographical. Strindberg, as proponent for women's rights, was disillusioned by female aggression against males, and he has been labeled a misogynist for his view of the aggressive feminist. Nonetheless, he makes pointed observations about male and female roles in The Father which will still be of interest to viewers, now 100 years later.