Theater: The Father

The Father, Starring Ralph Waite, Francis Sternhagen. Tradegy by August Strindberg. Directed by Goran Graffman. For Sweden's August Strindberg, marriages were not made in heaven. Wedlock was a deadlock of fiercely contending wills, a power struggle, and ignoble battle of the sexes. And never more so than in "The Father," the 1887 tragic drama being revived by the Circle in the Square on Broadway. It is an intelligently serviceable production, which realizes to a considerable extent the driving force of a searing, psychologically probing work.

Swedish director Goran Graffman introduces the play with a prefatory dumb show, accompanied by crooning female voices, in which the women of the Captain's household remove dust covers from the living room furniture. Laura (Frances Sternhagen), the Captain's wife, peruses the letter which, at a later point in the narrative, seals her husband's doom. While certainly not essential, the Graffman device is a permissible atmospheric touch. Marjorie Kellogg's austere setting features a low encircling barrier, suggesting the confined space of a one-ring European circus. Three long ramps lead to the exits.

Within these physical dimensions, "The Father" moves from the tersely ironic dialogues of the opening scenes to the fierce acrimony of the marital confrontations and finally to the devastating straitjacket maneuver which binds and destroys the new demented Captain. Thus ends a conflict whose latest manifestation was a dispute over their daughter's education. By means of devious deceptions and superior psychological warfare, Laura has won the campaign.

Ralph Waite (best known for his many seasons on TV's "The Waltons") plays the Captain as a brusque and peremptory but intelligent officer whose intellectual pursuits are beyond the comprehension of his narrowly conventional wife. Although he performs with vigor and a sharp sense of Strindberg's ironies, the profounder emotional depths of "The Father" seem at present somewhat beyond Mr. Waite.

Miss Sternhagen's quicksilver quality is transformed for Laura into a blend of smooth treachery, stinging insinuation (as she taunts the Captain into thinking he may not be the father of their child); and implacable determination. Her Laura illustrates how what Strindberg saw as woman's intuitive shrewdness and emotional guile can undermine man's intellectual defenses.

The subordinate characters -- all of whom become instruments of Laura's will --Woods (the Pastor), W. B. Brydon (Doctor Ostermark), Pauline Flanagan (the Captain's old nurse), and Kate Purwin (his daughter). For the opening dumb show , translator Harry G. Carlson (or perhaps Mr. Graffman) has in troduced the character of Laura's mother.

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