Although a play about two old white married people and their mysterious behavior and all their emotions is like Play 101 material, Florian Zeller’s play In the Height of the Storm feels exciting and surprisingly original. This is because the characters are so specific and so fascinating while the truth about their lives (or deaths) is so perplexing. Ostensibly a family drama, this play feels more like a mystery, as things you accepted as fact quickly get turned on their heads, and, more critically, people you accepted as alive or dead seem the opposite.
ITHOTS (omg it’s like a British baby trying to say ‘it hurts’ omg cutest), instead, is about a family in mourning. We meet the ordinary, average family early in the grieving process. There’s Andre (Pryce), the elderly patriarch who stares out the window for time on end as he loses a firm grip on his mind; there’s Madeleine (Dame Eileen Atkins I mean hello cast), his beloved wife who, in true British old lady form, is stern and austere but hilariously so (as long as she’s not your mum); and there’s the two grown daughters, Anne (Amanda Drew) the elder seemingly always forced by her sister’s immaturity (and her own comfort in the role) to be the more responsible one, and Elise (Anna Madeley), pregnant and single but completely unfussed about it.
The only problem is, we don’t know who they’re grieving, and neither does Andre. When we meet Andre and his one daughter, it’s clear that Andre’s beloved Madeleine has passed and the girls came in for the funeral. Friends are sending flowers constantly (so we hear – weird that there were none on set except the one bouquet we see delivered) and the pain and sadness is fresh. Except…a minute after the audience figures out who must have died, Madeleine herself waltzes in, strong and full of life, and changes the narrative we thought we figured out. Thank goodness, I guess? Andre and Madeleine seem fine and happy as they talk about lunch and share old stories.
Those stories are more than they initially seem, however. Names of old friends or people who were in the news come back later to add to the mystery of what’s real and what’s not. Or, considering Andre’s mental capacities, what’s real and what’s a product of his mind trying to deal with reality when it has trouble distinguishing between it and memory, and possibly fantasy. And considering how quickly we go from thinking “Oh it’s Madeleine who is dead…no wait both of these same-facers are alive?” to “no waiiiit, Andre is the one who died!”, we are quickly and effectively made to feel like Andre, or anyone suffering with loss of mental acuity. Efficiently, with just a few words or movements, the play flips existence as we know it on its head. The facts of the story remained incessantly vague and always changing, so that you couldn’t be sure of anything. But the feelings and emotions of the characters rang true, consistently clear.
Just as quickly as your guess as to who they’re mourning changes, so do actual characters sometimes. Andre's confusion as to what's going on becomes much more poignant when it seems as if he's the one who's died, and suddenly no one can hear him but us. And, when Madeleine meets a woman in the market who gives her condolences for Andre’s passing, the two meet for tea and discuss how this mysterious woman actually knew Andre, and how well. The conversation quickly turns from polite to disrespectful and almost vulgar. But then the same woman is having her tea with Andre and we’re mourning Madeleine, and her name is different, recalling one of the stories the couple had lightheartedly shared earlier. And just when you find it frustrating that you can’t get a handle on what’s real and what’s happening, one of the characters says something brilliant that breaks your heart, a musing on how sometimes you can’t tell the different between what’s really happening and what you are just remembering, or wanting to remember.
Suddenly, everything mysterious and confusing about this play makes sense. You’re left in wonderment that almost nothing said on that stage was certain, we’re not sure what if anything was facts, yet what the characters were feeling was what was real and concrete. And it feels entirely accurate that the person whose mind was sharing all the action with us would be confusing reality and memory and maybe even false memories, or things they wanted to have happened but never would. Regardless of what facts were real, the heartbreak was real and undeniable. It’s a powerful play that lets you connect so whole-heartedly with characters and situations even when they are this obscured, because the simplest things, like love and pain, are the easiest to understand.
In the Height of the Storm plays the Wyndham’s Theatre until December 1. The theatre royalty starring in the show is scheduled to play all performances.
The show runs 90 minutes with no interval.
$25 rush tickets are easy to obtain via the TodayTix app, and at least from my experience the rush tickets will be in the front row (front row dead center if you get the 4th-from-last ticket available).