Theatre Review: “Taking Leave”

April 11, 2010


So . . . let’s make something very, very clear right up front about “Taking Leave,” a comedy by the award-winning playwright Nagle Jackson directed by the amazing Anet Carlin, currently onstage at San Luis Obispo Little Theatre.

It’s a comedy.

It’s a satisfying breadbasket brimming with chunks of live – and lively – theatre that anyone over the age of 13 can consume and enjoy. Yes, enjoy! (It’s rated the theatrical equivalent of PG-13 for a bit of salty language and adult situations that every teenager in this day and age has already sampled on cable TV).

It’s a comedy. It’s about life. And living. And dying. And trying to make sense of it all from A to Z – which pretty well sums up why it is inescapably comedic. All the publicity shouting “it’s a celebration of LIFE!” while whispering “it’s about the ravages of Alzheimer’s” presupposes that audiences only want to see happy people singing happy songs and living happily ever after when they walk through the portals of their neighborhood community theatre. Tell it like it is. “Taking Leave” is insightful, stimulating and, dare it be said, entertaining!

It really couldn’t be anything else in the hands of the actors that Carlin has assembled to present this little work of art to Central Coast audiences. It is difficult to take your eyes off John Battalino as Professor Eliot Pryne whenever he is onstage. Clearly once a vibrant man, albeit a bit clueless outside academe, Pryne at age 62 has fallen victim to dementia. Battalino’s energetic and genuine performance keeps Pryne’s antics believable as he swings from childlike tantrums to plaintive pleas for help to sitting sweetly listening to his youngest daughter Cordelia read to him, much like he used to read to her.

Pryne’s wife having died years before, his three daughters must decide what to do about their father, who has just about reached the limits of his plain-speaking caregiver Mrs. Fleming (Jill Turnbow, whose dead-on delivery is unfailingly delightful).

Eldest daughter Alma is in denial (“His brain is a bit tired, that’s all!”). Middle child Liz is pragmatic but perhaps a bit too pushy (“This is not a Norman Rockwell painting!”). It takes last-to-arrive-on-the-scene Cordelia to show her sisters where their father has gone (“I see him as a new person”) and to act as the catalyst for a proper resolution of the situation. Mary-Ann Maloof, Amytra and Denise McGimsey respectively demonstrate that three actresses, physically different and markedly distinct in their movements and methods, can play believable sisters. It’s obvious that these players trust each other as well as their director to guide them in translating their individual instincts onto the bigger canvas of the production as a whole.

Carlin is a visual director, interpreting the playwright’s words through lighting and movement as well as through the flow of his language. This makes for a particularly visceral audience experience considering Pryne’s increasing inability to find the words he needs to express what he means. His fierce embrace of a helpless Cordelia in the first act, for example, communicates far more effectively than the simple words he fumbles to find to express love: “the thing when you hold.”

The play as painting “writ large” manifests itself (perhaps a bit too literally) in the form of an oversized rendering of the Pryne family – all five members present – looming over the set. The rug with a meditation labyrinth pattern on the floor under Pryne’s rocking chair is a subtler, more gentle reminder of the puzzle – or is it a maze of the mind? – lurking beneath the whole. But what a set! If you’ve been impressed in the past by what SLO Little Theatre crews have been able to build in the facility’s woefully tight space, you’ll be amazed at the dimension, depth and detail engineered by Joe Brenner along with master carpenter Bill Hart and scenic artist Stephen Taylor.

It is the playwright, sadly, that delivers the one major fault of this production. Jackson has chosen to incorporate into the narrative a version of Pryne’s self – called Eliot 1– with whom the flesh-and-blood Pryne interacts. Unfortunately, in order to show how the past led up to the present, Eliot 1 (a warm, thoughtful and appropriately professorial Michael Siebrass) also speaks directly to the audience; he is all about exposition and filling in gaps. Perhaps it’s a nod to his main character’s love of Shakespearean monologues – but Jackson is no Shakespeare and it feels like the playwright just took the easy way out, rather than reveal those bits and pieces in other more dramatic ways.

Don’t ever expect the easy way out from Anet Carlin, however. Don’t expect anything less than a well-conceived, expertly executed production. “Taking Leave” is both excellent and enjoyable.

In the “Behind the Scenes” department, from book covers to cereal boxes, propmasters Hildy Gal and Diana Cornelius add immeasurably to the verisimilitude of “Taking Leave.”

There’s still time to catch the show, which runs through May 2. Visit the CalCoastNews Community Calendar for details.