— Photo by Emily Cooper. Pictured: Karyn Guenther.
LEAVE OF ABSENCE
Sorry, sorry, sorry
Beyond the mention of a cell phone and the novels of Carol Shields, Leave of Absence feels like a newly discovered novel by Margaret Laurence from the 1970s. With an earnest priest undergoing a crisis of faith, a single mom holding onto her dignity, her teenage daughter not knowing the identity of her father, a tough-talking Russian immigrant who used to be a boxer and a feminist Catholic School principal who wants to modernize the priest’s Sunday ceremonies, this could be Manawaka. A plethora of scenes are crammed into almost two hours of drama.
Five characters are woven into a community of sorts; everyone still takes religion seriously. Even though the cast struggles to sustain drama on a mini-stage that divides two mini-grandstands for the audience (like a football stadium) so heart-felt monologues are delivered to the ether, Leave of Absence appeals as a noble effort to explore and elevate the devastation that can arise from bullying.
In the book version published by Talonbooks to coincide with this world premiere, the editors have chosen to exclude a key paragraph that appears in Frangione’s program notes for the premiere: “When I was in junior high, a girl was bullied for being a “lesbian” (really, I think she was just poor and socially awkward). A gang of boys eventually pulled her clothes off at recess and shoved pencils up her to see if she was built like other girls. We all knew who was involved and the boys got away with it. The girl eventually disappeared from school.”
It’s sticks in Leave of Absence, not pencils, but this play has clearly sprung from Frangione’s abiding horror of that horrific penetration; from her lingering Catholic guilt by association and from her curiosity about human baseness. How can these things happen? And shouldn’t the community at large take some responsibility? This angst is now rife in almost every school in the lower mainland as well-meaning teachers, principals and parents try to prevent bullying in the midst of feeling hopeless to turn the tide of new negative influences of their offspring: internet porn, video games and Iphones.
In Leave of Absence, the awkward, smart, 15-year-old victim named Blake (her boyish name exacerbates her problem) is a later bloomer. Manipulated by her cruel friend to experiment with their bodies in a tent one night, she is vilified in the community after that friend’s mother notifies all the other school mothers that Blake is a dangerous lesbian. Reduced to being “that little dyke from grade nine,” she reaches out to the priest, not her mother, thereby penalizing her well-meaning mother for not letting her know her father, especially after she learns it was feasible all along.
There are more than a few good one-liners in this poignant hodge-podge of good intentions and frustrated intimacy. Tom McBeath, the mainstay of this production as the compassionate and celibate Father Ryan, says he’s got to the point where the only 30-year-old that interests him is a bottle of scotch. Frangione, distraught as the single mom Greta, says the United Church she attended in her youth was one step up from a bowling league.
It’s all very Canadian. Everyone yearns for goodness. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Imagine Corner Gas as a two-hour psycho-drama. “I’m taking a leave of absence,” says Father Ryan near the end, “because I have been absent.” Conversely, Frangione is returning from a leave of absence, having meditated for decades on that unpunished pencil crime.
We all get to feel terrible when bullying arises. Lucia Frangione has written a play about it. Although this is a far, far cry from The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, we can feel good about that. It’s an improvement on silence. Speaking about the unspeakable.