The Height of the Storm
Written by Florian Zeller; translated by Christopher Hampton; directed by Jonathan Kent
Performances through November 24, 2019
Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce in The Height of the Storm (photo: Joan Marcus)
Devastating loss permeates Florian Zeller’s shallow memory play, The Height of the Storm, in which a long-married couple is shown in the last throes together. The mother, Madeleine, and father, André, now living in their former summer home outside of Paris, are seen together and each one of them alone. It’s a conceit that, on paper, allows for interesting ambiguities, but the unsubtle Zeller instead relies on platitudes and blatant effects to color his study of old age, dementia and death: rather than an affecting drama, the play remains curiously inert.
If that has to do with Christopher Hampton’s translation and Jonathan Kent’s direction, which keep the characters French even though the entire cast is British it’s impossible to say. But both of those add more layers of distance from these people, which further lessens the effect of an intimate chronicle about long-gestating emotional wreckage in a family weighed down by André’s notoriety (and infidelities) as a writer while Madeleine raised their now-grown daughters Anne and Élise, who have relationship problems of their own.
Zeller’s melodrama presents fragments of this couple’s alternate realities, while Kent’s fussy staging underlines the obvious point that sometimes Madeleine and other times André is not present. Of course, “not present” also means lacking mental capability, one sign of dementia, which is how André often appears, even while physically present.
Such vacillation is less piercing than it might be; early on it already seems a mere gimmick rather than a salient way of displaying the ravages of dementia and old age. And despite a formidable cast—Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce are unimpeachable as Madeleine and André, with equal amounts of welcome humor to alleviate the tragic aspects, despite Pryce’s tendency to shout his lines—The Height of the Storm (whose heavyhanded title, from both a poem recited by André and a weather event that’s mentioned, is freighted with symbolic and actual weight) provokes neither tears nor empathy.
The Height of the Storm
Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY