Leave of Absence has an audacious sensuality

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By Lucia Frangione. Directed by Morris Ertman. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on Friday, January 25. Continues until February 16

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Lucia Frangione’s new script Leave of Absence is vivacious—and scattered.

Thematically, the play keeps its five characters busy. Fifteen-year-old Blake has ecstatic religious experiences, which are envied by Father Ryan, a former physicist who is her confidant. Martha, the principal at Blake’s Catholic high school, is sympathetic to the teenager’s religious ecstasies, but she’s not as keen on Blake’s apparent lesbianism.

Blake’s single mom, Greta, is so full of liberal questions that she wonders why she’s still a Catholic. And Leap, a Russian hunk, likes his religion served traditionally. The characters have such defined and conveniently divergent takes on faith that Leave of Absence starts to feel like an all-candidates meeting.

Narratively, there’s a lot going on too. There’s the Leap-Greta-Ryan romantic triangle, the mourning for Leap’s wife, whom we’ve never met, and the off-stage seduction and bullying of Blake. Partly because the play is moving so fast in an effort to cover all of this territory, plot turns can feel melodramatic and, because the text is so unfocused, the central dramatic action, an assault, carries far less weight than one might expect.

Still, there’s an audacious sensuality in the script: Greta talks about being turned on by watching her cat eat the belly out of a baby bird—the rawness and satisfaction of it. There’s a genuine openness to wonder in the text, in Blake’s communion with the female divine, for instance. And the dialogue is consistently funny. Leap, who regards himself as God’s gift to women, describes sleeping with his wife prior to her death: “Every night, I crawl in beside her like a goddamn Christmas present.”

There are also some persuasive performances in this production. The yearning and intelligence that Tom McBeath brings to Father Ryan help make the character a credibly complex guy. And, in her professional debut, Karyn Guenther impresses as Blake. Like innocence, religious rapture has to be tricky to play, but Guenther humbly brings it. In the evening’s best scene, Blake tells Ryan what grace feels like. It’s exciting to see newcomer Guenther holding her own with McBeath, a seasoned professional.

Craig Erickson is an excellent actor, and he commits to his portrait of Leap, but the character is such a stereotype as written that he mostly comes off as a Russian clown. And Marie Russell’s delivery as Martha is so halting that it often feels like she’s going to forget her lines.

There seems to be the potential for several plays in Leave of Absence. I’d like to see all of them—one at a time.

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