Leave of Absence is as epic as a Peter Jackson movie, but rather than content with a quest for a single ring, Vancouver playwright Lucia Frangione’s story of sexuality and the Catholic Church becomes overly ambitious.
In the central story of Leave of Absence, 14-year old Blake is beginning to discover her sexuality. Thinking she might be gay, Blake is attracted to another female classmate at her Catholic school and just as quickly as she begins her sexual exploration it ends with tragic results. Meanwhile, Blake’s mother Greta reveals the truth about her father; the school principal finds herself in hot water with the church she serves over her use of mystic prayers; the Russian boxer Leap is thrust into a relationship after the death of his wife; and Father Ryan begins to question the very existence of god.
While it all may sound a bit complicated, Frangione does manage to keep the various storylines clear; where it does let down is in a refusal to allow any of these individual stories to fully develop. By the time each of the storylines play out, we have been pulled in so many directions none of them have the necessary emotional impact to leave a lasting impression. The story is also hampered by the relationship of Father Ryan to the female characters that have no hesitancy in using him as sexual confidant; a role that will stretch even the most lapsed of Catholic’s imaginations.
In preparing for an earlier interview with the playwright I had the opportunity to read Leave of Absence before seeing it on stage. While I was struck by the epic nature of the story at the time, I did find an easier connection to each of the characters in reading the script. Ironically perhaps, last night not only saw the world premiere of Leave of Absence on stage, it was also the unveiling of the published version from Talon Books.
Despite the unwieldy nature of Frangione’s layered story on stage, there are some fine performances from the quintet. As the young protagonist, Karyn Guenther is convincingly innocent and vulnerable while forced into a false “wise-beyond-her-years” with the interactions with the adults in her life. Frangione steps onto the stage as Blake’s mother with a natural ease that no doubt comes from her connection to the material as playwright and Tom McBeath is effective in as the conflicted Father Ryan despite the somewhat unrealistic role of sexual confidant. Craig Erickson makes the most of his role as the Russian boxer and though Marie Russell struggled at times on opening night with her lines, she manages a generous performance.
Director Morris Ertman makes some interesting choices, especially as the characters over-talk each other at times and effectively uses Drew Facey’s set design, dominated by Father Ryan’s office, as a metaphor for the sometimes insidious nature of the church.
Ultimately there is so much going on in Leave of Absence that it can be barely contained by the tiny Pacific Theatre in a single 120 minutes; if anything screamed out for a trilogy it is here.
By Lucia Frangione. Directed by Morris Ertman. A Pacific Theatre production. On stage at Pacific Theatre through February 16, 2014. Visit http://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.