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But Slenderly Known Himself
By Kathryn Ceceri

Taking Leave
By Nagle Jackson, directed by Steve Fletcher
Curtain Call Theatre, through March 14

Curtain Call Theatre producer Carol Max was worried that presenting a play about Alzheimer’s Disease would keep audiences away in droves. Judging by the mid-run full house—and the audience’s reaction to the play’s ample humor in the face of sorrow—Max probably doesn’t have to worry.

Shakespeare scholar Eliot Pryne once expounded on how prose equaled madness in King Lear. Now he himself is delusional. His suburban Seattle home, he’s convinced, is a luxury hotel—albeit one where the lobby is often strangely empty and the guests have an overly familiar attitude. Although his endlessly patient caregiver, Mrs. Fletcher, has been able to keep him safe and fed so far, the time is coming when decisions will have to be made. Like Lear, Eliot has three daughters: Alma, a prim high-school guidance counselor who lives nearby but doesn’t always keep her promises to help out; Liz, a dynamic “working actress” in L.A. who flies up to take charge; and Cordelia, the baby, who drifts around Europe and appears in the midst of the family powwow unexpectedly. Each has her own reaction to what their father has become. Alma prefers to think of him as “whimsical”; Liz wants to face facts and find a good facility for him. Cordelia chooses not to judge what’s happened. “We don’t get better or worse,” she says at the end. “We just go to a different place.”

Helping Eliot when he can’t find the right word (a suitcase is “a thing you put things in”) is his lucid self, “the me of me.” This Eliot fills in the gaps, offers comfort, and occasionally steps into the action to play the scene as it would have gone, had the old Eliot not been exchanged for the new one. And occasionally the “real” Eliot, in his ramblings into the past or rare moments of competence, lets slip a glimpse of who he used to be.

The acting in Taking Leave is superb. John Noble as Eliot, and Richard Rameaka as “the old” Eliot, contribute equally to the picture of the character that emerges. The daughters, Barbara Richards as Alma, Maryhelen Lounello as Cordelia, and producer Max as Liz, do a good job of playing off each other’s very different personalities (although the gap between Richards and Max is so wide it sometimes seems unlikely they grew up in the same family). Robin Leary makes the saintly Mrs. Fletcher appealing and believable.

Scenic and lighting designer Mal Martin’s set tries for an Alice in Wonderland feel by bracketing the living room’s built-in bookcases with what looks like the spines of gigantic books. Lights and sound (designed by Graeme McKenna) combine well at the end of Act I to make Eliot’s terror of his delusions real.

Though it bears a strong resemblance to a much-better-known play about an academic whose daughters must deal with his mental breakdown, Taking Leave predates David Auburn’s Broadway hit Proof by about two years. Author Nagle Jackson dedicates Taking Leave to his mother, an Alzheimer’s patient, and it may be his insistence on keeping Eliot at the center of the story that prevents the play from plumbing greater depths than it does. Eliot is “dwindling into prose”; it’s left to those around him to be affected by the experience, but the transformation seems a little too quick and too open-ended to provide a satisfying ending. Still, director Steve Fletcher makes the most out of the well-crafted elements of a story for which the ending will always be sad.

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