There’s something comforting about memory plays, something refreshing and unnerving about their movement through time, the way that they traverse different states of being, different realities. There’s the Pinters, the Shepards, the ones that relish in their incongruities, little untruths, but in so doing access something that feels even more honest. Florian Zeller does just that in his play The Height of the Storm, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, though it pulls away from the moments when it could best achieve its aims.
In the play, two sisters, Anne (Amanda Drew) and Elise (Lisa O’Hare), visit the home of their parents, André (Jonathan Pryce) and Madeleine (Eileen Atkins). The occasion? It depends on where you touch down on the chronology, which is muddled and mixed, all memories running, in some sense, concurrently. There’s a death, or two, or no deaths but an illness. There’s a real-estate deal, or there’s none to speak of. There’s a secret life gleaned from a diary, and there’s a woman who may be a friend or a lover or just an acquaintance come to offer some help.
The play opens with André (Jonathan Pryce) standing in his kitchen, silently looking out the window for several minutes, as Anne discusses his papers, which his editor wants to gather and publish. There’s something strange about André’s demeanor and reactions—he’s distant, and his responses are just a little bit off. Perhaps, the play offers, André isn’t actually there, and seems to give itself away immediately as a production about haunting—a mundane haunting, with a cantankerous old man shuffling around his home as his family talks to or around him—but a haunting all the same.
But what Zeller does accomplish is more complex than that; he uses multiple timelines and open questions about the characters to create a knot that anchors the center of his play, and the tugging of which creates the tension. It does take some tugging though. The play builds slowly, setting itself up, but at its worst it nods too dramatically toward its machinations.
Early on, as Anne brings up André’s papers, his reaction is gruff—can’t a man just have his secrets, he asks, facing the audience, and it’s the equivalent of wink-and-nudge foreshadowing. We know now: he has a secret, and we can guess what it is. The signposts interrupt the lyrical mythology that the play is building, and the production only reinforces the text’s inclination to do just that.
The lighting, which is sometimes handled with delicacy—alternatively streaming in from the windows like the sun on a clear morning and dimmed in the exterior, with only a little lamplight illuminating the room—becomes a bit too present in the moments when it targets a character in particular, positioning them more definitively in regards to the “truth” of the scene. The scene transitions, too, with their maudlin strings, do the play a disservice, but the production’s worst fault are the moments when it becomes too didactic in its understanding and delivery of the material.
The play’s most interesting in its in-between moments, as in the space between life and death, and in the spaces where every implication seems to present a version of the truth. Those transient spaces are the most haunting, and that’s the point, one assumes, of The Height of the Storm, to present a kind of ghost story where the characters being haunted and doing the haunting are one in the same.
Pryce, as the character at the center of the action, is great in his mix of befuddlement and outbursts, and telegraphs the moments when his André’s mind fails him with his whole body—a hunch, a shuffle, and an unnerving involuntary shake. Atkins provides an artful match and counterpoint: similarly curmudgeonly at times, sometimes stern, the ballast of the relationship. It is, after all, the Pryce and Atkins Show, as the play is almost exclusively interested in the elder couple at its core, and the pair is easily the most engrossing part of the whole affair.
But there isn’t much of their interactions, just the two of them, until the end, when the play aims for sentimentality. The rest of the characters, then, feel incidental. Anne and Elise, defined only as the “serious” one and the kind one, exist in a purgatory of character development, where they’re present enough, and given just enough information to be of interest, but not given enough to seem fully fleshed out. The sisters are at odds, we understand, and their emotional dynamic and long-simmering judgments and resentments are gestured to, but they each end up simply being buttresses to the two figures meant to actually hold our interest.
The set, by Anthony Ward, is a sight in itself, a kitchen of an old house with impossibly high ceilings, full of books and weathered with age, a library and front hall viewable in the back. It’s a site prime for haunting, especially when the doorways dim and the characters disappear through them, as though they’re passing to the underworld and back.
We’ve seen this kind of play before, but The Height of the Storm doesn’t always commit, meaning that it loses the opportunity to really tap into the form and create something surprising, because, for all of the talent of Pryce and Atkins, and the beauty of the production, it still feels, at its heart, predictable, with the structure trying, albeit mildly, to present the same gift with not-so-different wrapping.