Sometimes something has such an effect that to not write a review would prevent the proper appreciation of the art being completed. Such is the case with Leave of Absence, which had its official World Début last evening at Pacific Theatre.
For some time, the writing of Lucia Frangione has had a profound effect on me. Her ability to intelligently discuss the spiritual without the too-common ‘preachiness’ of some religious-themed plays is all to rare. Surely the consideration of philosophical and moral codes of living one’s life in a thoughtful and considerate fashion is something that we all do, at least to some extent. “You can’t say that!” “How could anyone decide that was acceptable?” “Who raised her as a child so that she would think that as an adult?” “If a son of mine was like that, I’d dis-own them!” These are things commonly said by anyone, no matter the religious upbringing or lack thereof.
Over the last several decades of current events, the two recurring themes are war, and those in authority of Organized Religions’ ability to critique behavior of others with a willful disregard of their own. This has led to a dismissal of religion in any form by the common man, as they eschew it in favor of humanitarianism. All people have the right to do so, and I am not decrying their decisions (in fact, I consider myself among their group). The discussion of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ within a religious setting (a Catholic-run high school) makes the series of events of this play sing with moral judgements. The Church is at war with the church in the heart of a 15-year-old girl (played by Karyn Guenther; who is incredible): she sees the Holy Spirit, and the reality of what she’s been is dismissed by the same teacher who gave her the information of its very possibility (Marie Russell in a very earnest and caring performance). The priest (Tom McBeath; who is consistently able to make acting disappear into pure reality) and her mother (Lucia Frangione in one of her best performances ever) both believe her, at least to the extent that the incredible can be fully accepted by anyone. The local Russian emigré Leap (Craig Erickson; in a wildly successful balance of “butch tough-guy” and “caring”) thinks that the girl just needs a Father, or at the very least an older brother of sort to stable her daily influence.
Over the course of a what seems to be week or slightly more, the entire question of spiritual awakening, bulling, sexuality, imposed religious dogma at the cost of actual Christ-like care and consideration, the focus of self-interest over actual attention to others, and life’s ability to cause things to occur while one is making other plans entirely, all come to a head for this little group of five and the community in which they revolve. As it is with any great theatre, they will never be the same after, and neither will the audience.
Much of the plot revolves around people’s need to pigeon-hole people into labelled categories: gay, straight, weird, normal, sinner, popular, husband, widow, priest, lay-person. Yet, no one is any one of these with the exclusivity which would make life easy. The priest certainly has a sexuality (he’s quite happy, thanks, just not gay) but he subsumes it owing to his calling. The tough-guy ex-Soviet hates his dead wife for never letting him understand the intelligent and intimate side of her soul. The single mother and teacher both love their charges for the potential they have yet do not wish for time to actually progress, and are thus disappointed to some extent when it does.
Somehow the girl “Blake” (named for the poet) has to come to terms with her own sensualist religious beliefs as manifested within a Catholic upbringing. She’s surrounded by people who are both complex and internally contradicted, yet she is the one labelled an “out-lier” in the way that a set of probability data includes instances of high improbability; extremes influence the ‘average’, but are still extremes. Being entirely un-equipped to deal with this duality of teaching and reality surrounding her, she’s in over her head, and so are the other students in the school, to the tragedy of all.
The central question is not one of “what did someone do for this child?” but a more important one of “what did we, as intelligent and caring human beings not do which contributed to the situation in which we now find ourselves?” The act of murder, bigotry, the rejection of personal ability to make a difference (positive or negative) are, sadly eternal matters in the history of human events. For all we dress up each day’s “hot topic” with words about “the right wing”, or someone’s “agenda”, the evils of “organized religion”, or “kids today”, it comes down to what did each of us do to prevent this and it always has.
I’ve not been to the theatre in quite some time, for a number of personal reasons. The end of the piece left me in tears, and restored my faith in the ability of playwrights to tackle complicated subjects in ways that mean something to an audience without either imposing their final message or preaching, respecting the audience sufficiently to come to their own conclusions about the matters.
This will be produced everywhere, and for the excellent reason of its crafting. The performances of this initial production respect that, as well as setting the bar at a height in keeping with the quality of its words.
If you’re not able to see a production — or even if you are — the script is already published by Talon Books.
Leave of Absence, written by Lucia Frangione, produced by Pacific Theatre, 1440 West 12th Avenue, Vancouver, Box Office: 604.731.5518
Director: Morris Ertman*; Cast: Tom McBeath*, Lucia Frangione*, Craig Erickson* Marie Russell*, Karyn Guenther; Dramaturg: DD Kugler; Composer: Jim Hodgkinson; Set: Drew Facey; Costume; Sydney Cavanagh; Lighting: Laughlin Johnston; Sound: Jeff Tymoschuk; Stage Manager: Jethlo E. Cabilete*; Ass’t Stage Mgr: Michelle Harrison; Ass’t Costume: Catrina Jackson; Properties: Linsy Rotar; Technical Dir: Jess Howell; Head Elec.: Kougar Basi; Venue Tech: Denis Pimm
[*appears with permission of the Canadian Actors Equity Association]
Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Saturday matinees 2pm; Post-Show Artist Talkback: Friday, February 1; Panel Discussion: Saturday, February 9 (approx. 4:30pm), featuring QMUNITY, Dignity Canada, and Ms Frangione