My micro-reaction on Twitter to this Pacific Theatre production of a new play by Lucia Frangione was “beautiful performances and lots to think about.” If there had been room, I would also have said that I love Lucia’s writing. She’s got a gift for smart, colourful dialogue, and I get a sense that she has enormous affection, or…generosity of heart…towards her characters, even as it’s clear that they are all flawed, struggling people. Leave of Absence was full of gorgeous turns of phrase, and also descriptions that were so powerfully evocative that they were hard to listen to.
In the past I’ve found it difficult to connect with stories (regardless of medium) that are about struggles with religious faith or the experience of spiritual awakening, or even the simple feeling of believing in a deity. It’s all quite foreign to me; I was raised by atheist parents and have yet to feel a need for any kind of spirituality in my life. I wonder sometimes if that makes me shallow, or means that I’m not actually living a full life in some way? But anyway, the point of bringing that up was to say that in watching this show, I felt a bit closer to understanding some of what other folks might feel about faith. In fact, one of the most memorable, moving moments of the night, for me, was when teenaged Blake (played by Karyn Guenther) threw out a challenge to God – “are you there?! Speak up, if you are!” was the gist of it – and got an answer. I don’t myself believe in any greater power – but thanks to Karyn’s beautiful, natural portrayal of Blake’s reaction, I caught a glimpse of how it might feel to hear the voice of God (or Goddess, or whatever name you choose) saying yes, I’m here and I see you. I love you.
I also loved that it was rebellious, snarky, questioning, 15-year-old Blake who got to have that experience of grace. (In a later scene, also beautifully done on all fronts, her priest awkwardly asks what it was like – never having experienced anything like it himself in decades of priesthood. I love the fact that he believes her, that he doesn’t dismiss her because of her youth or her unconventionality, and that he can let go of his authority enough to say teach me, please, to such an unexpected person.)
The parts of the story that were about bullying were painfully familiar to me, as I think they would be to pretty much anyone who has been through middle school or high school, unfortunately. WHY are kids so cruel? Why do they get so afraid at that age, so quick to condemn anyone who’s a bit different? I was lucky, I guess, in that I was always kind of in between: never entirely outcast but definitely not part of the “in” crowd either. My journals from grade 5 onward are full of angst about it – wanting desperately to be “in” but also hating how mean those kids were to the ones who *were* fully outcast. I remember it as walking a tightrope all day, every school day: constantly balancing what I knew was the right thing to do against the driving need to be liked myself (or at least not made fun of) by the girls who “mattered”, to travel in a group and feel safe and accepted. I hated how afraid and guilty I felt – that my friendship had limits imposed by my own cowardice or wilful blindness. BUT, as difficult as all that was, I was not actually ever bullied, myself. Others had it so, so much harder. It’s utterly unfair.
In Leave of Absence, Blake is lucky: she’s strong enough in herself and her quirky, heretic faith to cope – in fact she copes better than the adults around her, who are well-intentioned, but frighteningly unable to effectively handle their community’s bullying problem. They try all the things you would logically try: disciplining the perpetrators, attempting an appeal to the school’s collective better nature, even removing the victim from school when things escalate – and still, the worst happens to Blake at the end.
No fault to Lucia’s beautiful writing (and so many kudos to the cast, who gave heartbreakingly real performances throughout), but – it’s a familiar narrative. Someone who is faithful and strong and a bit of an outsider is sacrificed, and the tragedy becomes a catalyst that brings people together, opens their hearts and minds in some way, helps them to learn to love each other more or better… The flip side of the story is universal too, though: things like this also divide communities. Blame is assigned, “good” people and “bad” identified, victims and perpetrators and bystanders, and so on and on and on. We keep telling this story because it keeps happening. Is it just what humans do to each other (both sides of the coin)? I’m not sure it’s fair of me to want Leave of Absence to show me something new on this front, since I don’t even know if that’s possible. I don’t know if the story could have gone differently and still ring true; I certainly don’t have any solutions or answers of my own. Possibly, the point is to bear witness, to grieve, and come out of the show feeling a little more open-hearted as a result.