Forget Me Not

The mahogany shelves of Dr. Eliot Pryne's stately home are jammed with leather-bound books. But the white-haired professor doesn't bother much with his library these days. Since Alzheimer's set in, he can't remember what those squiggly things on the pages are called anymore.

"Words," his weary caretaker reminds him.

"Oh, yes," he says, shaking his head. A confused grimace trembles across his pale lips. Eating Froot Loops from the box, he promptly forgets what it was he couldn't remember.

Anyone who's known someone with Alzheimer's will recognize the awful truth of Pryne's catastrophic mental decline as captured by actor William Hardy in Nagle Jackson's Taking Leave. Hardy plows right into the humiliating center of the disease, depicting the anger of a man whose mind has been so broken by bad biology that he can't remember that his first-born child, the one who came "before the others," is called the "oldest."

In fact, Hardy and directors Brandon Smith and Richard Carlson are responsible for what might be the best production Actors Theatre of Houston has mounted this season. The vagabond group has bounced about the city from rented theater to theater since losing its space on South Boulevard last summer. But they have never seemed more at home than in the lushly conservative digs of Stages Repertory Theatre.

George Brock's handsome set rises high into the theater's rafters. The dark wood staircase, the shelves of gilded books and the gray stone walls covered with dark oil paintings make the space feel like a castle, a fitting home for an Alzheimer's victim whose favorite Shakespearean character is King Lear, the greatest old-man-gone-mad of all time. The snippets of clarity, when Pryne remembers poignant passages from Lear, do much to illuminate the way Alzheimer's has worn smooth the sharp edges of his mind.

Into the tattered remains of his days come Pryne's well-intentioned but willful children. Like the Lear he loves, Pryne has three grown daughters -- each with a busy life that doesn't include much room for a father who'll wander the neighborhood naked if given the chance. Clearly, we are meant to draw comparisons between these modern women and Lear's more interesting monster-brood; in case we miss the point, Jackson goes so far as to name Pryne's youngest child Cordelia.

But Jackson's writing is less successful when it comes to Pryne's daughters. The bickering between Alma (Susan Shofner), Liz (Sara Gaston) and Cordelia (Courtney Webb) has none of that larger-than-life quality of Shakespeare. These sisters simply dredge up old wounds and try to pass off the responsibility of caring for dear old Dad. The only person really dealing with the dirty work is Mrs. Fleming (played with evenhanded warmth by Terry Cochran), a hired nurse who tolerates the sisters' collective demands and general bitchiness with unnatural patience.

These scenes come off as banal within the framework of Pryne's mental descent, a downward spiral made even more poignant by a wonderful theatrical device. The stricken Eliot, wandering about in pajamas, is often followed and helped by a shadow self, the former Eliot, played by Charles Bailey with the sagacious dry wit you'd expect from a curmudgeonly scholar. He helps the sick Eliot retrieve the words that are floating away, and he narrates Eliot's childhood, which becomes increasingly relevant as he regresses.

There is a sweet sentimentality to all this that glosses over the most horrifying ramifications of Alzheimer's. Still, Jackson's play captures human frailty, rage and loneliness in the face of a mighty disease.

Al Capp created the hillbilly cartoon character Li'l Abner back in 1934. Li'l Abner and all the other hick stereotypes who lived in Dogpatch liked doing nothing all day 'cept drinking moonshine and hanging out at the fishing hole. For the first 20 years of his cartoon life, Li'l Abner lived in bachelor bliss. Though his muscular arms made him popular with the cartoon girls -- most notably the buxom, blond and barefoot Daisy Mae -- he didn't seem to care much for the ladies (now that's a story worth exploring). No matter. Mammy and Pappy Yokum helped him avoid all the low-down shenanigans out in the world.

In 1956, the cartoon came to life in the form of a musical comedy by Johnny Mercer, Gene de Paul, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. Though it's hard to imagine how four grown men worked up the silliness to develop this bubble of a show, Li'l Abner the musical has survived the decades and found its way to Main Street Theater for the group's current concert musical series.

The best thing about this slight production is Li'l Abner himself. Spencer Plachy plays the title role with a big warm voice and a sweet, crooked grin. Plachy even has the cartoon character's big arm muscles (that's "muskles" in hill talk). The musical tells how Li'l Abner finally gets hooked by Daisy Mae (Kelli Estes), but not before he goes and gets himself into all sorts of trouble -- including his engagement to a fancy-pants city girl named Appassionata Von Climax (Karen Ross). All the Dogpatch folks get together to find a "Three Stooges" way out of Abner's mess, but first they sing a bunch of songs about love and marriage and the joys of sitting around doing nothing.

The production seems to please the kids in the audience most of all. Carolyn Houston Boone, as Mammy Yokum, and Robert Leeds, as Marryin' Sam, in particular, seem to revel in the big-gestured, over-the-top, funny-papers world director Jerry Miller has created in the show. There isn't much for grown-up palates, but summertime is kid time, and Li'l Abner offers a fun alternative to the movies and the mall.

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Lee Williams