Arts & Events

‘Leave of Absence’ at Berkeley City Club

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday January 28, 2009 - 07:29:00 PM


“Your head tells you and keeps on telling you, ‘You can’t fix it.’ But your heart won’t believe it.” It starts with the disappearance of Harriet, wife and mother, who apparently has just walked away from home. Is it the bad news Hank, her husband, told her abruptly over dinner, about the company going bankrupt, his retirement both imposed and scaled back in pension, putting her dream of a trip to Paris in doubt? Or the steady lessening of communication with Hank and two of their three sons? Or is it the effects of age, along with a lifetime of taking up the slack for a dysfunctional family? 

It’s all mulled over and reenacted in Leave of Absence, James Keller’s play, directed by the playwright, at the Berkeley City Club on Durant just through this weekend. A brief, packed run for a show that should be seen. 

Keller’s an accomplished playwright; Leave of Absence is the middle—though freestanding—play in a trilogy, Nebraska Blues, bookended by Child’s Play and work-in-progress Aunts and Uncles. He directs a fine cast, familiar faces to local theatergoers: Martha Luehrman, Harold Pierce, Ket Watters and Sarah Meyerhoff, engaged from the start in a tightly played series of duets that telescope into trios, dialogues between the older couple and/or their youngest son and his wife, all centered around the kitchen table, where the four sit, facing one another in silence for a brief moment at the start, piano chords resounding.  

(“But the offstage characters, who never appear, are important too,” says Keller.) 

That tight staging, the timing of the dialogue and tradeoff of interlocutors, both tells the story and reveals the characters in different facets as they speak to different relatives about other subjects under a variety of circumstances. Hank, for instance, diffident or blustering and imperious with Harriet or Tom, becomes wistful, charming—if self-derogatory, melancholic—around Tom’s gentle schoolteacher wife, who can see the subliminal traits Tom’s picked up from the father he feels estranged from. 

The dialogue creates and recreates this human situation in its complexity, brooding questions and repeated dodges only adding to the skein of fiber that’s unwound and rewound, over and over. Keller says he’s fascinated with the Greek tragedians, who wrote sparely, dialogue and choruses set in a particular space, and his staging, the dynamics between his cast members, make the City Club a site that embodies past and present, with the growing intimation of a living future that will step out of the shadows cast by obsessive memory. “We’re all haunted. We all have ghosts. We just have to learn to live with them. Can we?” 

“I’m fascinated by the situation of three or four siblings who share the same tragedies, the same root experiences, yet are different,” Keller says. He teaches Humanities at Berkeley Adult School, and says, “The people I teach are all retired, but if someone had told me I’d write about senior issues, I’d have laughed at them.” 

The issues are there, big as life, as black and white as newspaper headlines: forced retirement, pension and medical plan cutbacks, lost dreams, a generation gap in communication (especially with the two sons resembling their father), dementia ... but Leave of Absence discovers—and runs on—an inside track, a well-worn if secret footpath that winds through the tentative engagement of conversation, dialogue, argument even, the soliloquies of musing, monologues of groping self-explanation.  

It’s a humane, thoroughly unprogrammatic piece of theater, somewhat over an hour of continuous exploration, which reveals just what Aristotle meant by Action, the soul of drama, which can be a thoroughly internal movement made visible by dialogue and simple gesture. 




8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 and 8 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 1 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. $20. (415) 664-4305.