Taking Leave-Profoundly funny piece about the elderly-and King Lear

What can be funny about an Alzheimer’s patient.

A funny play about Alzheimer’s behavior seems counterintuitive, but then again the basis of humor is tragedy. In Taking Leave, by Nagel Jackson, which opened at Dukesbay Productions in Tacoma, the astute playwright and the shrewd director, Melanie Gladstone, showed how a good dose of humor can alleviate a tragic situation.

Taking Leave draws on the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear, when a not quite elderly English professor, Eliot Pryne, whose expertise was Shakespeare in general and specifically King Lear, has Alzheimer’s disease, and decisions have to be made about his care.

Like King Lear, Pryne is widowed with three grown daughters. As a result of some bizarre behavior in the classroom and on campus, Pryne was forced into early retirement, and lives alone with his competent, no-nonsense rather sarcastic nurse Mrs. Fleming. (Pamela Roza)

As the play opens, a younger version of Eliot Pryne -Eliot 1, (W. Scott Pinkston) appears in a corner of the stage, and introduces the audience to his older self, as Eliott Pryne (Kerry Bringman) is confusedly packing to leave what he thinks is a hotel.

As the play progresses, the older Eliot behaves appropriately as a person with Alzheimer’s, much to the bewilderment and frustration of his two eldest daughters, who keep trying to force him to remember 1) that they are not his students, 2) that his home is not his office 3) that his wife has passed away, and other reminders of reality. Needless to say, they cannot accept the reality of his inner world, so they fail dismally as they try to decide whether to put him into a home.

Many family conflicts come to the fore; parental favoritism, unresolved sibling rivalry, while dirty family secrets are aired. One of the family secrets is that a third much younger daughter, Cordelia or Corry (Mykahla George) the free-spirited, black sheep was the father’s favorite. Nobody knows where this irresponsible sister is until she breezes in at the end of Act I. Following King Lear, it is Cordelia, who saves the day both emotionally and practically, and deals with the situation and her father in an inspirational manner.

The playwright, Nagel Jackson, used the presence of the younger version of Professor Pryne to great advantage; at times he acted out flash-backs, at other times he commented on the action, and filled in some background. It was a unique dramatic device and extremely effective.

Although it sounds like a terribly depressing play, it was not, the dialogue was very funny with all sorts of literary illusions, but it was never pretentious, as the playwright generally poked fun at academic pretentiousness and exposed some of the less commendable aspects of male academics.

Highlights in the cast were the two Eliots, the elder Eliot Pryne, Kerry Bingman, handled both the humor and the sadness of someone loosing his status, power and agency. His younger self, Eliot-1 played by W. Scott Pinkston was outstanding in this heart-wrenching role as a younger man seeing himself declining without dignity or hope.

Pamela Roza as Mrs. Fleming-the practical, down-to-earth nurse nailed every bit of humor and wit sarcastically and added a lot to the production. And then there was Mykahla George as Cordelia, the wastral daughter; she was highly amusing as well as tragic. Ms. George delivered a complicated poetic monologue at the end of the show which was riveting.

The clever sound design by Niclas Olson, before the show, foreshadowed many of the themes.. “We are Family,” played, which subliminally suggested, that this was a family show, “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, which is a song about hallucinogens affecting our brains, which is what Alzheimer’s is-proteins altering the functioning of the brain physiologically. And then there was Tony Bennett’s “I left my heart in San Francisco.” An important part of the backstory takes place in San Francisco

The set design by Erin Chanfrau with busts of Shakespeare, hard-wood floors and comfy chairs was spot-on for an intellectual’s pad. But a lot of credit goes to director Melanie Gladstone, for bringing it all together. Taking Leave, is the sort of script which needs a lot of directorial finesse to make it a success, and finesse is what I saw.

I urge everybody to see this play. For the baby boomer generation, Alzheimer’s is upon us. Three friends of mine have had it. One is younger. There is a clear message about how to deal with it. This message is the most profound message of all. Do not try to control, accept!

Taking Leave
. Dukesbay Productions. Merlino Arts Center. 508 -6th Ave, Tacoma 98402. Fri and Sat 7:30pm, Sun at 2:00pm

Tickets: https://DukesbayTakingLeave.bpt.me

N.B. Tickets are ony $15. Lots of street parking. If driving down to Tacoma, Sun afternoons are the best. Also there is an express bus from Seattle

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