BWW Review: TAKING LEAVE at Oyster Mill Playhouse
Oyster Mill Playhouse in Camp Hill, PA, is perhaps known for their ability to bring plays previously lacking in recognition back into the public eye. Time and time again, they have proved themselves masters of the unknown, making us wonder how the theatre community has overlooked certain plays that are capable of provoking just as much thought and emotion as any work of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. With their current production of TAKING LEAVE, Oyster Mill Playhouse once again breathes life into a show that may have otherwise slipped through the cracks.
The play (written by Nagle Jackson) follows Dr. Eliot Pryne, a retired professor who had once specialized in the study of Shakespeare but has left his career behind when he is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He begins to slip into his own world, the presence of his daughters and his in-home caregiver not seeming to stir him as much as the figure he has created in his own mind. Eliot is often visited by Eliot-1, the embodiment of the man he could be that illness has now taken from him. The two interact frequently, and each character is expertly portrayed. Dr. Pryne is played by Bernard DiCasimirro, who does an excellent job with the large and daunting task he has been given. Portraying a character with any kind of illness is a challenge in and of itself, but Alzheimer's disease is an overwhelming ordeal that must not be dealt with lightly. DiCasimirro does nothing of the kind, instead dedicating himself to his performance and delivering a character that truly drives the motivation of the others.
DiCasimirro's Eliot is confused, frantic, and nearly out of his mind. He wanders aimlessly about his home, convinced that it is a hotel. He experiences violent, angry outbursts, and words of reason are often lost on him. The audience is able to clearly see his deteriorating state of mind, especially in the actor's use of physicality and line delivery. Eliot is lost in a haze that illness has brought upon him, and it clouds his thoughts and actions. He stops for no one, remains in perpetual rushed state and cannot seem to slow himself down for much of the show. His panicked and confused nature is well-developed, proving the dedication that DiCasimirro has put into ensuring that he does those affected by Alzheimer's disease justice with an accurate portrayal of the disease. DiCasimirro's act is impressive in it's realistic nature, he has inhabited such an ill, disillusioned facade throughout the show that his rare moments of clarity are even more impactful. His range of emotion is commendable; he is both angry and despairing, "whimsical" and bitter, and each of these come across equally well. DiCasimirro has not made Eliot a product of his disease, but rather a man who had much to offer and is beginning to be silenced too soon.
What is left Eliot's mind lives on in Eliot-1, played by Gordon Einhorn. He is the juxtaposition of Eliot almost completely. Where Eliot is bewildered and disheveled, Eliot-1 possess and consistently displays a sort of regality and professionalism that Eliot used to employ in his lectures. Einhorn's presence onstage firmly reminds the audience of this state of affairs, holding his head high and keeping his posture straight and tall. He has kept the wise and knowing nature that the Eliot of the past once had, and this makes him a fond figure in the minds of the audience. While his counterpart has lost all rhyme or reason, Einhorn's Eliot-1 is composed and put together, firmly grounded in the reality that he soon will disappear as Eliot's condition worsens.
However, this resignation is tinged with tenderness, sadness, frustration and more than a little bit of pity at the thought of what he has become. Eliot-1 is forced to watch as his outer shell crumbles away, and his interactions with the Eliot of the outside world are just as complex as interesting as one would imagine. Eliot is so dependent on the thought of keeping his sanity close by, and DiCasimirro employs this desperation expertly. In turn, Einhorn's Eliot-1 remains steadfast and steady, working with DiCasimirro's Eliot to create emotional and memorable moments. They work incredible well together, playing off the juxtapositions between their characters and the inexplicable connection between them to portray a relationship that impacts the audience in ways they may not have been expecting.
Another commendable performance comes from Marguerite Zwahlen as Ms. Fleming, Eliot's in-home caregiver. A natural stage presence, Zwahlen brings to the table a Ms. Fleming who is caring, patient, and doting, clearly having been with Eliot long enough to understand him and his condition. Despite her comforting attitude, she is also firm and no-nonsense, putting Eliot's well-being at the forefront even when he is not willing to cooperate. Zwahlen's Ms. Fleming is a strong and professional woman, one who exemplifies the important yet never-ending work that medical personnel must do in order to provide comfort to the ailing. Zwahlen is one of the more naturalistic actors in the show; her line delivery is exceptional and she creates a character that the audience almost immediately becomes fond of. She understand what must be done to ensure Eliot's safety, even when he is at odds with himself.
While Eliot must fight his internal battles, his daughters are struggling with a myriad of problems on their own. Alma, Liz, and Cordelia are as different from each other as night is day, and yet must still come together to tend to and discuss the future of their ailing father. The eldest daughter, Alma, is played by Roxanne Hennessy, and is perhaps the most tightly-wound of the bunch. She is easily flustered and often comes across as a bit judgemental, especially when it comes to the lives of her sisters, but ultimately displays a kind and tender nature that allows the audience to warm up to her. While Hennessy occasionally employs a bit of an unrealistic acting style, she thrives on physicality, always seeming comfortable onstage in each scene despite the worried, anxious tendencies of her character.
Alma lives in the all-too-practical world of a guidance counselor at the local elementary school, and yet rejects the reality of her father's situation in favor of living in denial. Her talkative nature comes across well as a coping mechanism, and Hennessy does an excellent job of portraying Alma as a woman of many layers, a woman who is more than the straight-laced worrywart her sisters believe her to be. She has been forced to age past her years as a result of the tragedy in her family, and Hennessy's physical and emotional choices onstage reflect this in her character. That being said, she could benefit from showcasing a bit more of the anger and frustration the eldest Pryne sister eventually brings to the surface, as this would contribute to a more realistic performance. Alma is a nurtuer at heart, but it would be interesting to see her pushed to her limits just a bit further. However, Hennessy does hit her stride later on in the show, bringing much more moving intensity to this seemingly warm and simple character.
Liz Pryne is the second eldest daughter, and is brought to life onstage by Emily Krieger. Liz has found success in the glitz and glam of show business, and does not let her family forget it. Her time in Hollywood has left her with a strong personality and a certain air of superiority that Krieger displays well; this marks Liz as a woman who clearly considers herself to be the wisest of her sisters despite not being the oldest. Though Krieger initially comes off as a bit overly-dramatic, she settles into her character quite nicely as the show goes on, her facial expressions especially conveying both the "mightier-than-thou" attitude that Liz possesses as well as her obvious concern for her father. Where Alma chooses to deny their father's worsening condition, Liz instead chooses to face it head on, and this decision has convinced her that she is the more mature adult in the family. She often expresses this to her sisters, and Krieger does a particularly commendable job of portraying a character that is both haughty, angry, caring, and stern all at once.
Liz frequently makes a switch between a playful and serious attitude, showing both the actress's range as well as the toll that a sick father can have on one's emotions. Krieger thrives on the righteous attitude of her character, who obviously considers herself to be responsible for both of her sisters. She is the family mover-and-shaker, the one to take action, and these tendencies have left her to believe that she knows what's best. However, her character could still be taken to the next level with a bit more anger on top of Krieger's already large attitude as she wields her perceived authority. However, later moments when their father's illness becomes too much to bear is when Krieger truly pushes Liz to her breaking point, and it is interesting to see her character react to her changing world by somehow becoming even snobbier, a faucet of her character that Krieger employs quite well, particularly through her physicality.
Samantha Speraw rounds out the Pryne sisters as Cordelia, often called Cory, the youngest of the bunch who often acts her age. Speraw perhaps has the most naturalistic acting style, portraying her character's youthful and reckless nature expertly. Cory thrives on sarcasm, and Speraw has this bold and brash attitude down to a science. She is independent and brave, making no efforts to hide her abundance of confidence, and yet the audiences often gets the impression that she is lost. Cory is lost and out of place, both within her family and within the world at large, and this more than like contributes to the wanderer she has become. Cory travels the world in search of something that she has not yet found, and Speraw embodies the roaming spirit that Cory has become quite nicely. She brings a youth that her other family members do not have, one that is real and refreshing even when her character acts out of immaturity. She is clearly not afraid of confrontation, and often appears to be harboring a kind of sadness and bitterness that her sisters don't have time to address as a result of Dr. Pryne's illness. Cory has hardened herself, turning to alcohol, drugs, and other destructive behaviors in order to provide from shelter from her family's storm. Despite this, she still possess a light-hearted, much less serious nature than her sisters, one that makes her the black sheep of the family and one that has caused Alma and Liz to doubt that Cory cares about their father as much as they do.
However, despite her sarcasm and wit serving as some much-needed comic relief throughout the show, there are many moments where Cory reveals the patient, tender side of herself that her sisters rarely see. She proves in these moments that she is just as affected as they are, despite her indifferent from. Cory does care, but merely has a different way of showing it. Speraw brings not only youth but wisdom to her character, and we as an audience get to see Cory grow up before our eyes. Speraw's acting ability spurs the change in her character, and she expertly maneuvers the ebb and flow of her intensity that makes her character all the more realistic.
Each Pryne sister is their own distinct personality, much to the credit of their respective actresses. Hennessy, Krieger, and Speraw all work together to create a truly unique relationship between their characters. The sisters have had a rocky past, one that may not have between nurturing or stable even before their father became ill. They are argumentative and unable to understand each other, and these fundamental differences between them contribute to their strife and to the tense nature of their relationship. However, at their very cory, they are sisters, and all three actresses are able to bring the loving and compassionate aspects of their sisterhood to the surface, despite their rough exterior. They are bound together by their father and by the need to see him taken care of, and they always manage to find a way to see past their own problems and petty fights to the bigger picture.
TAKING LEAVE, at it's core, reflects the enormous toll that an ailing family member has on their loved ones. It embraces the ugly side of family life, the hardships and imperfections that many of us want to keep behind closed doors. The show not only remind us of the ties that bind our families together, but also serves as a moving and impactful vehicle for the spread of Alzheimer's awareness. Oyster Mill Playhouse once again produces a wonderfully executed drama, one that you will not want to miss before it takes its leave as well.
Presented by Oyster Mill Playhouse through August 27th. Next is DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. Visit oystermill.com.