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San Luis Obispo Little Theatre’s production of “Taking Leave,” a play about the effects of Alzheimer’s on a family, begins Friday.

Kevin Harris, managing artistic director at the theater, said the play is a dramatic comedy about lead character Eliot Pryne losing his mind. The story focuses on Pryne, a retired professor, and his three daughters, who have to decide whether or not to send him to a home for the elderly. Pryne taught Shakespeare and was an expert on the playwright’s “King Lear” before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“It’s an inspiring, uplifting show that raises universal questions about what to do when your parents get old,” Harris said.

Harris said Pryne is caught between reality and fiction, and the play closely mirrors the story of “King Lear.” Harris said they decided to do a full run of the show after a one-night stage reading done two years ago that received great feedback from the audience. He said they wanted to bring it to a wider audience. Those who provide care see the effect of the disease up close, not only on those afflicted, but on their families and friends as well.

Alzheimer’s destroys brain cells, ravaging memory and hindering the ability to perform everyday functions people take for granted. Michelle Taylor, a local registered nurse-practitioner, said people with the disease can be easily agitated, lose inhibitions and have verbal outbursts.

“They can say really inappropriate comments and be very paranoid,” Taylor said.

Taylor said some symptoms can be made worse by the cycle of medications used to treat the disease and their side-effects. Alzheimer’s is listed as the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, recently passing diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5.3 million Americans have the disease. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s.

San Luis Obispo’s local branch of the association will host a booth at each performance to provide information and resources. Cindy Wittmeyer, community relations and events coordinator for the local chapter, said the play will bring the issue to people in a way they can relate to.

“It’s a fascinating look at a disease that has a huge impact on society,” Wittmeyer said.

Wittmeyer said she wants to raise awareness more among younger people who may be dealing with their parents, and some day themselves, without a cure.

The Alzheimer’s Association raises funds for a better understanding and cure for the disease. Services provided by the association are free of charge. Harris said the cure can’t come soon enough, since baby boomers are starting to hit retirement age. He said the expectations for diagnosed cases predict a rapid increase over the next several years.

Wittmeyer said the local branch is excited to be involved with the project. Sarah Bartlett, the association’s area director, will lead a question-and-answer session after the matinee performance April 24.

The play doesn’t focus solely on the negative effects of the disease. Harris said it brings levity to the serious issue, and that the people will leave feeling good about life.

“I hope it gives the audience the opportunity to learn and grow. That’s the ultimate meaning of theater,” Harris said.

“Taking Leave” runs from April 9 to May 2 at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre with four shows each weekend, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.

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