The current production of “Festen” by David Eldridge is based on a 1998 Danish film. Festen translates as “celebration” and that is especially appropriate as the story is focused on a family gathering to celebrate the 60th birthday of their father, Helge. It is also especially ironic, as the dinner also becomes an opportunity for the eldest son, Christian, to publicly accuse his father of sexually abusing both he and his sister (who has recently committed suicide) when they were very young. There is not a single person at this “celebration” who does not have terrible inner conflicts, secrets they cannot allow themselves to share, or devastating injuries from being a part of this assemblage, or of this family. This is a quite wealthy family, but we are soon made aware of the extent of their emotional poverty, the suffering and internal devastation of their history and the inability of any of them to truly transcend the past and what it has cost them. Over the course of the play’s ninety minutes we feel like we have lived for decades with these people, and there is no exemption from their mutual suffering and betrayal. Only the superior acting of this cast provides any respite from the dark and devastating reality of these people’s lives. It is also the reason why we can’t take our eyes off the stage, constantly try to see more deeply into these individuals, and why we ultimately feel like we are just as much a part of this event as any of these guests.
Director Wilson Milam has assembled a stellar cast and they deliver all of the diversity and authenticity of this wide-ranging assemblage of distinct individuals. As the father, Helge, Bradford Farwell does an excellent job of portraying a man who is embarrassed but not ashamed of these terrible accusations. That they may or may not be true seems of little consequence to him. It is easy to understand how this totemic man has built a life that is largely a myth, and expects nothing but respect from the others. As his wife, Else, the always amazing Amy Thone brings such depth and experience to the character that, while we can never really see inside her, we are constantly aware of how much, and how deeply the experiences of her long marriage exist within her. In the critical role of Christian, the son who feels he must reveal his father’s crimes in order to honor his lost sister, Connor Toms was brilliant. Anything but a perfect man himself, Christian was tormented and virtually destroyed by the abuse he has never really been able to understand. Toms made everything about this character both compelling and contradictory, a damaged life that embodies the sort of damage that all of us carry to a much lesser degree.
As the other brother, Michael, MJ Sieber was so obnoxious, violent and bigoted that it was easy to see how his own unloved childhood led him to this repulsive personality. His wife, Mette, was played by Brenda Joyner as a woman who is up to every one of Michael’s ridiculous offenses, and is herself much stronger and more resilient. The sister, Helene, is much less obviously damaged, and yet reveals a great deal of inner conflict and attempted ignorance of all that has ruined these people. I thought Betsy Schwartz did a splendid of job of making her a woman who was clearly a part of this assemblage, and yet her own person. All of the rest of the ensemble delivered their own personal identities in a very convincing way, and accented how very closed and isolated the lives of the people within the family really were.
This is not a play that will make you leave the theater feeling happy and entertained, but rather a drama that will underscore many of the painful, buried experiences in all of our family lives. The only happiness may be in the recognition that our own experience may not be quite as tragic or destructive. New Century Theatre Company just received a Gregory Award for Theatre of the Year, and this production certainly underscores how richly they deserved that. I don’t think you can find a better ensemble of actors in Seattle, and Wilson Milam certainly knew how to get the most out of them. Don’t go to this show looking for an evening of light entertainment, but if you want a dramatic experience of deep and troubling insight into personal and family relationships, you really can’t do much better than “Festen.”
PICTURED ABOVE: Bradford Farwell as Helge
PHOTO BY: John Ulman