Review: Taking Leave by Nagle Jackson

This production is presented with good pace and a sense of style that is a product of the skill of the cast and the perceptive guidance of Director Pat Roddy. In fact the Roddy family is also present in the original musical score, which was composed and devised by award-winning son Justin, a music and soundscape free lancer, who frequently travels to Toronto to insert his scores and soundscapes into professional productions in that city. Roddy’s original score and soundscape for this production were, as you would expect, an effective emotional background—unobtrusive and appropriate.

Jackson has chosen a useful approach to this play, which deals with the agony of Dr. Eliot Pryne, a once brilliant Shakespeare scholar specializing in King Lear, and his three daughters and a care-giver nurse, as he is ravaged and imprisoned by Alzheimer’s disease. The playwright’s approach is to give voice to the interior character by using the device of Eliot-1, a narrator who represents the man’s trapped intelligence as it used to be. Michael Togneri plays the narrator with impeccable timing and with a visible comfort. The tone of the narrator is very conversational, comfortable. Through him we get a real sense of who this Alzheimer’s victim was. Because Togneri is so skillful, it is easy to forget that he is carrying a great deal of the weight of the characterization. Eliot-l gives us more of the man than the script sets out for Bill Roddy, who plays the imprisoned Dr. Pryne in real time; yet these revelations are bestowed upon the shell of the professor so that we come to integrate them into the man.

Bill Roddy displays considerable range, which is in itself quite remarkable, when you consider that his character has very few intelligent things to say, and his dialogue is by definition absurd. He shows us the outer details of a man who has lost touch, but who still has some reflexive behaviours that let us see some of the wit and literary preoccupations of the scholar. Even the profound passages from King Lear are often disjointed because of the character,s disability, but they are often poignantly relevant. In contrast, the comedy of his “swimming,’ scene was a hilarious highlight, as the audience reaction would attest.

The daughters are Alma (Laurie Manzer), Liz (Pat Haaksman) and Cordelia (Nikaiataa Skidders). Like Lear’s daughters, they are three diverse characters who find themselves dealing with an irrational old man. Manzer gives a brittle edge to the spinster school counselor who refuses to face reality and doesn’t want to fulfill promises to look after her father. Haaksman’s Liz is more conciliatory, but she doesn’t want to stay around either; she just wants to take a practical approach and put their father into a nursing home so she can get on with her TV career. Skidders’ Cordelia is the wild card character, a gentle waif who seems out of touch with reality, arrives unexpectedly and proceeds to overdose on vodka and pills, making her seem like an unlikely candidate to offer any help.

Manzer’s character is essentially unsympathetic; her passive resistance becomes an obstacle to helping their father. This is a difficult quality to play; yet Manzer brings a realism to the role that is quite convincing. I particularly liked her wild wet-look hairstyle.

Haaksman presents Liz as a forceful woman who sees a path and sweeps everyone along. She was hampered somewhat by managing the challenging dress she wore initially, but was able to relax into the role with the less extreme slacks combination she wore later. While her character is more sympathetic than Manzer’s, she still presents a very real desperation that draws spectators in to her take on the drama.

Skidders brought a comfortable graceful looseness the Cordelia. She was able to hold the stage even though her performance was much softer than the other sisters, both of whom were working within their own frenzied intensity. Each time I see her perform. I am impressed by her ability to enter a character.

Estelle Denis played the nurse, Mrs. Fleming, with a common-sense attitude, who was not fazed by anything; she has seen it all. She has a natural strength onstage, and it suits the character well. The care-giver functions as the island of sanity around whom all the other characters swirl. She is the Fifth Business.

It is always interesting to see a play in a new venue. Here is a room in many ways similar to the Glen space, but much wider. I was surprised that, given the width, the set was so narrow. There were many instances in which the constricting narrowness of the set affected the business. Notable was the placement of the seldom-used rocker chair downstage left. It was directly in the way of the much-used shelves with the books and the bar. The way was further impeded by a large plant. Placing the chair and the plant on the house floor downstage left, and the bar supplies on a small table directly upstage of the couch would remove the problem. The stairs are another issue, as they do not continue upstairs far enough to allow for the illusion that they do continue up. While I liked the use of moldings on the corners, the set would have been strengthened and wall-joints tightened by the use of a wide molding across the top of the walls.

The other problem that the flat floor of the space creates is sight lines for the audience. I am as tall as anyone, but I was sitting in the second row behind a man almost as tall as I, and that made it difficult for me to see the main action, which usually seemed to take place to the left of centre, without craning around the gentleman. I suggest that someone should approach the Weave Shed management to obtain the portable bleachers which were built by community volunteers with the materials paid for by community donations, and were intended for a community arts centre. Since the Weave Shed is no longer a community arts centre, it is only right that the arts community have the use of the bleachers. I feel certain the Kaneb family, which owns the waterfront facility, would be pleased to make this gesture of goodwill to the cultural life of the city. It would certainly improve the viability of Dream Builders Studio as a performance space.

Also on the subject of sight lines: actors were sometimes unaware that the audience could see them waiting to enter: an elbow in a doorway here, a shadowy figure at  the top of the stairs-these are details that destroy the fourth wall.

There are two other things that would improve the viability of the space: 1. controlling house lighting from the board and increasing the number of lighting instruments, particularly the crucial back-lighting (although the FOH (front of house) has some dark spots that need attending to. 2. controlling very distracting backstage light-spill by either enclosing workstations in black drapes or painting the upstage wall black.

I want to leave this on a positive note. This is a beautifully written play that deals with the subject in a very sensitive and sometimes even humorous manner. There are passages in the play that are very moving, particularly the very intricate passages between Dr. Pyne and Eliot -1, and in the final moments, between Dr. Pyne and Cordelia. Skidders’ gentle characterization in combination with Roddy’s deft light approach permits the scene to have a dream-like quality which is entirely appropriate for the emotional context. I was quite moved.

The play continues tonight (April 24) and next weekend. It is a good evening.

Production reviewed: April 23, 2010 Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.

Vagabond Theatre presents Taking Leave by Nagel Jackson

Director: Pat Roddy

Producer Dan Youmelle


Eliot Pryne: Bill Roddy
Eliot-1 : Michael Togneri
Alma: Laurie Manzer
Liz: Pat Haaksman
Cordelia: Nikiaiataa Skidders
Mrs. Fleming: Estelle Denis
Understudy and Prompter: Alan Mills

Production Crew:

Assistant Producer: Ashley McCool
Stage Manager: Micheline Lacasse
Lights: Bruce Manzer
Soundscape Design: Justin Roddy
Sound: Dan Youmelle
Properties: Marjory McCoy
Set design: Brian Fourney
Set Construction: Brian Fourney and Ray Price
Set Dresser: Katie Burke
Set painter: Gilles Lacelle
Poster Design and Programme: Adrian Black
Advertising and Promotion: Nancy Munro and Brian Lynch
OriginalTheme Music: Justin C. Roddy, SMAC Records

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About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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