A person without language is a person without a soul. When memory is consigned to oblivion, it can put up a fight in mysterious ways. In My Father’s Words, a play written by Justin Young and directed by Philip Howard, tells the story of Don (Angus Peter Campbell), an old man who lives on the edge of Lake Ontario in the early 1990s. Don’s home, all stark simplicity and wooden surroundings, is reminiscent of a run-down boat - adrift and disoriented. This is a lonely place.
Don's dementia has forced his estranged son Louis (Garry Collins), a university classics lecturer, into finding the necessary care that he himself is not prepared to give. When Flora (Muireann Kelly) is hired as a professional carer, she quickly identifies Don’s hitherto indecipherable speech as Scottish Gaelic, a language she learned from her Scottish mother. As Don’s senility advances, his use of Gaelic supersedes his English; he is drifting further out from the shore. After dismissing it as a nonsense tongue, Louis is baffled as to where his father could have picked it up. To this, Flora responds matter-of-factly. “No-one’s a hundred percent Canadian.”
Louis is struggling with a language of his own. His translation of Homer’s Odyssey is long overdue. As to his relationship with his father, their dialogue, or lack of, has always been at fault. Flora’s attempt to unlock the secrets of Don’s past highlights a long history of misunderstanding.
When typed or spoken, English translations of Homer’s Odyssey and Scottish Gaelic (translated by Iain Finlay MacLeod) appear to float upon a backdrop, where the shimmer of each letter can be traced in the reflection of the lake. The effect takes us in deeper. The lake and the ocean have memories of their own.
This critically acclaimed play has traveled with its original company, Scotland’s Dundee Rep Ensemble (who produced it for the first time last year), to take part in New York’s eleventh Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. Despite the remoteness of the setting and the isolating weather, the cast radiate warmth and vulnerability. Campbell’s Gaelic delivery brings him to life as senile Don and as a performer. Collins succeeds in depicting both an uncomfortable restraint and a boyish naivete, while Kelly’s instinctive and believable portrayal of the caregiver allows the audience to share in her curiosity and compassion.
In My Father’s Words is a bittersweet tale of loss and language. The story arc is not so unfamiliar, but Philip Howard’s attentive direction puts the right amount of emphasis on the play's tender moments, which are as captivating as the unfolding revelations.