Contemporary dramatists don't typically direct their own plays, mostly because of the notion that at some point, all writers lose a sense of objectivity concerning their own ideas. Lately, though, more playwrights have chosen to direct their own transparent confessions. And in the Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of Nagle Jackson's play Taking Leave, the arrangement yields surprisingly handsome rewards. In fact, the choice to have Jackson direct his own play (loosely based on his mother's battle with Alzheimer's) results in a tender, moving tale that's rich with good-natured humor and blessedly free of sentimentality--chiefly because this playwright knows his subject matter better than anyone else.
As the 130-minute drama begins, we're introduced to Eliot Pryne (Tony Church), a retired Shakespearean scholar afflicted with Alzheimer's who lives alone in his large Seattle-area house (a wonderful, elaborate set by Bill Curley). Eliot's daytime nurse, Mrs. Fleming (Kathleen M. Brady), tends to her patient's basic needs and also puts the occasional kibosh on Eliot's childish antics, such as when he gobbles Cap'n Crunch cereal straight out of the box while racing through the house in his pajamas. As Eliot tramps about, muttering and cursing to himself, a middle-aged Eliot (referred to as "Eliot, once removed" and portrayed by Michael Santo) appears on stage to serve as narrator of the action. From time to time, these two versions of Eliot interact with each other and with Eliot's three daughters: a straitlaced (but lapsed) religious zealot, Alma (Jeanne Paulsen); a telephone-dependent Hollywood starlet, Liz (Susan Cella); and an idealistic, pill-popping drifter, Cordelia (Jennifer Schelter).
Its characters' initial appearances notwithstanding, however, Taking Leave is no mere American dysfunctional-family play. That's because Jackson has enlarged upon his discussion of mental-health issues by raising the ghost of Shakespeare's King Lear. Eliot, for instance, is an expert on the famous tragedy and even named his youngest daughter after Lear's child, Cordelia, the dramatic heroine who was initially spurned by her tormented father only to care for him in his last days. And though it helps to be familiar with Lear in order to fully appreciate all of the comparisons that Jackson draws, most of the Shakespearean references and quotes he uses are either self-explanatory or are discussed in layman's terms by the characters. It's an intriguing device that ultimately rends hearts as we witness Eliot disintegrate into a modern-day equivalent of the feeble-minded king who was once his literary hero.
Jackson's superlative acting ensemble creates a believable, put-upon brood, conveying the requisite sibling rivalries, shattered dreams and unarticulated desires that define contemporary American family life. In fact, the performers' team-spirited approach is so strong that the characters' collective plight nearly eclipses the magnitude of their individual struggles. Nevertheless, the seasoned actors manage to elicit Jackson's theme that Alzheimer's is frequently more debilitating to friends and relatives than it is to the afflicted person, who often leads a clueless (and, one assumes, relatively blissful) existence.
Church leads the company with an adroit portrayal of the addled English teacher for whom language has become virtually self-defeating. With piercing eyes and clenched fists, Church exudes flashes of Eliot's former greatness, only to devolve into sputtered epithets as the troubled man struggles to complete a sentence or grasp a much-sought-after word. And the DCTC veteran is at his heartbreaking best when Eliot barks out professorial maxims to his daughters, whom he routinely mistakes for his former students. Santo's steady alter ego is a more mellow rendering of the acerbic academician, which, when combined with Church's endeavors, makes for an effective portrait of Eliot before, during and after the fall. Brady's splendid caregiver, complete with sunflower-patterned frock and orthopedic shoes, is a model of obstinate compassion; she is determined to help Eliot and his beleaguered family (and us, for that matter) whether anyone likes it or not.
Paulsen's neurotic do-gooder has plenty of backbone when it comes to telling everyone else what to do but turns to rubber when forced to assume some responsibility for her father's care. A source of much of the play's humor as well as its pathos, Paulsen's consummate portrayal is nicely complemented by Cella's brassy egomaniac and Schelter's winsome prodigal.
In one of Jackson's more poignant scenes, Eliot shares a boyhood memento with Cordelia, an episode that brings to mind Lear's words to his beloved daughter: "We two alone will sing like birds in the cage/When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down/And ask of thee forgiveness." And while we sense that coming to terms with one another (as well as with Alzheimer's) will remain a formidable challenge to Eliot and his family, we also have high hopes for the new and strange journey that they begin at play's end.
Taking Leave, through June 13 at the Ricketson Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.