Arts & Culture

Stage: Dificult Truths

Mary-Ann Maloof and John Battalino in ‘Taking Leave.’
Mary-Ann Maloof and John Battalino in ‘Taking Leave.’ PHOTO BY QUINN BOWMAN

Taking Leave” is a play about a family facing tough decisions as its patriarch’s brilliant, humorous personality dissolves into the mental chaos of Alzheimer’s. It sounds grim, but it’s really not.

Written by Nagle Jackson, the drama is leavened with humor — sometimes dark—and sprinkled with clever dialogue. The San Luis Obispo Little Theatre production, directed by Anet Carlin, is well cast and the acting is excellent.

The playwright obviously had Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in mind when he wrote “Taking Leave,” giving his tragic hero three daughters, and even naming the youngest Cordelia (called Corey).

The title, too, comes from Shakespeare, but there are none of the Bard’s complications of plot or political intrigue in this play. The confrontations are between the three sisters, as their quite different characters are developed. However, the most interesting part of the play is the relationship of their father with his former self, as played by two actors.

Dr. Eliot Pryne, a university professor and Shakespeare scholar, has lost his grip on reality. As John Battalino portrays the unraveling professor, Michael Siebrass, whom only Pryne can see and hear, tries to ground him, coaching him with words and concepts he can’t remember and reminding him of the past.

This inner self describes himself as “the me in me.” He also serves as a narrator as he gradually unfolds the family history and the relationships of the sisters with each other and with their father. His dialogue with the professor provides some insightful observations about the dementia.

Dr. Eliot Pryne lives with Mrs. Fleming, a caregiver. His two oldest daughters have agreed to meet to decide whether he should be sent to a “home.” The eldest, Alma, is a rather dowdy, unimaginative school counselor, and Liz, the middle daughter, is her opposite — an ambitious, self-centered television actress. Alma is in denial about their father, saying he is just getting old (he’s 62). Liz thinks he should be sent to a care center.

Cordelia, their wayward younger sister, turns up unannounced, recently returned from France (another Lear reference). As the women sort out their feelings about their father’s fate, they also reveal their own feelings toward each other, developed over the years and punctuated by the death by cancer of their beloved mother, seven years earlier.

Battalino is superb as the professor. Funny but sad at the same time, he’s a most sympathetic character. As dementia invades a mind, many people have rather ordinary memories to deal with, but he has a complex memory bank, filled with Shakespeare quotations and academic details. Siebrass, as his concerned alter ego, is also excellent as he tries to hang on to the deteriorating past.

Liz, the television actress, is played well by Amytra. She has a great comic scene as she becomes hysterical when she discovers that her father has ripped out the phones and she has no outside communication.

Mary-Ann Maloof is good as the low-key older sister, Alma, as she becomes defensive of her low self-esteem.

Cordelia, pierced and tattooed, turns out to be the surprising catalyst in the play. Denise McGimsey is convincing as she defends herself from her older sisters’ disapproval, then becomes the most sensible of the lot.

Jill Turnbow is excellent, as always, as the caregiver Mrs. Fleming. She naturally inhabits any role she plays.

Although the subject matter of the play might put some people off, it shouldn’t. This is an insightful and entertaining production, with heart as it deals with difficult truths.