Leave of Absence attempts to balance sexuality and spirituality

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The Catholic Church is once again flaming the fires of religious intolerance as Pope Benedict joined the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano last month in reiterating his church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. Going beyond the usual rhetoric, Benedict said his Church’s opposition to gay marriage was a “fight for the family”, calling into question the very future of mankind.  The semi-official newspaper of the Vatican went a step further saying that same-sex couples were living in a “different reality” and that gay marriage laws were an attempt at a communist-like “utopia”.

But as much as the Catholic Church seems to be pandering to its more conservative followers, many continue to question its attitudes on homosexuality.  While some have chosen to fight from within, others, like Vancouver playwright Lucia Frangione and the priest who inspired her latest play Leave of Absence, have left the flock in search of religious tolerance elsewhere.

There are tears in the eyes of Frangione as she talks of her tragic story of tolerance, bullying and religion that attempts a balanced view of sexuality and spirituality within the Catholic Church juggernaut.  Set to play Pacific Theatre at the end of the month, Leave of Absence is Frangione’s response to the church’s stand on same-sex marriage and as a reluctant counsellor to the LGBTQ community.

“After writing [her 2003 play] Espresso, where I explored the ideas of sexuality and spirituality as a modern Italian Catholic, I had kids and young adults write to me about being bullied or wanting to kill themselves.  They didn’t know how to resolve their sexuality with spirituality and were looking for some guidance,” explains a visibly emotional Frangione in recalling the correspondence she has received from these young strangers.

Citing a dearth of resources for young people, Frangione found herself questioning her own beliefs and realizing she was like so many, caught up in her own life, absent from the pain and suffering around her.

More than an attempt at a balanced exploration of sexuality and religion, Frangione also touches on a range of other topics that also includes bullying, suicide and doubt.

“All of my plays are quite epic,” she says to explain why she chose to write such a layered piece.  “I think it is reflective of how I question big things in my own life.”

Craig Erickson, Lucia Frangione, Tom McBeath and Karyn Guenther in Leave of Absence. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Craig Erickson, Lucia Frangione, Tom McBeath and Karyn Guenther in Pacific Theatre’s Leave of Absence. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Asking those big questions in Leave of Absence has also made it a perfect match for Pacific Theatre, a self-described faith-based theatre company that has explored many tough subjects over its thirty year history.  For Pacific Theatre Artistic Director Ron Reed it is the way in which Frangione tackles the various themes in her latest play that fit so well with his theatre company’s philosophy.

“We’ve gone to dark difficult places before and we’ve asked some tough questions,” says Reed.  “We don’t shy away from controversy and while the stage may be the pulpit we’re not telling people the answers to things and we’re certainly not looking to oppose any set of dogma.”

Director Morris Ertman sees things from a more philosophical viewpoint, citing an admiration for a church that has both “had room for eccentric saints and theologies” and one that can change its sometimes controversial stand on issues.

“The experience of working out faith within the context of our chaotic humanity is the journey of every person trying to make spiritual sense of the world,” says Ertman. “So, I expect people to have strong feelings. When don’t we when tragedy strikes? We look for reasons. We look to find who is culpable. But the play does not dismiss Catholicism. It simply renders the Catholics in the story as human beings.”

For Frangione, portraying her characters as human beings is made easier by finding much of her story in reality, including the priest who she dedicates the play to.

“The story was originally inspired by Father Robert, a Toronto priest who went on his own leave of absence after the Church’s response to same-sex marriage,” explains Frangione, who also confesses the character of Blake is based on some of her own experiences as a young woman and from passages drawn from journals she wrote at the same age.

Tears well up a second time as Frangione talks of the impact that she hopes her story will have with those that see it, especially younger audience members that may be questioning their own sexuality and how it relates to spirituality.

“This one is different,” Frangione says of her play. “It is the kind of play that saves lives.  I’ve been moved on a personal level by some of the kids that have written to me and this is my love letter to them.”

As the Catholic Church continues to rail against gay marriage and calls for its followers to “come home” in a continuing effort to bolster sagging attendance, perhaps they can learn from Frangione’s simple What Would Jesus Do philosophy: “I realized what damage is done by not acting and found myself wanting to give what I had to offer: to be compassionate and loving.”

(A version of this article first appeared in the January 17, 2013 edition of Xtra! newspaper)

Leave of Absence
25 January – 16 February 2013
Pacific Theatre

A community is blown apart when an audacious young girl challenges long-held views of spirituality and sexuality. Pacific Theatre presents the world premiere of a searing drama of bigotry and transcendence by local playwright Lucia Frangione.  Visit http://www.pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.

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