Brilliant. That’s the word that popped into my head at the end of Eureka Day, presented by Spreckels Theatre Company in Rohnert Park. Absolutely brilliant, timely, prescient, smart, and utterly captivating is this relatively new play by Bay Area playwright Jonathan Spector. It’s also touching, heart-wrenching, and even unsettling in its unsparing observations of current times. Spreckels’ production features a terrific cast and crisp staging to match, and is a definite Don’t Miss.
Spector’s play, set in a private school in 2017 Berkeley, starts with a small group of parents tapped to serve on the school’s steering committee, led by headmaster Don (Jeff Coté). There’s Suzanne, who has served on the committee the longest, played with steely Earth-mother goodness by Sarah McKereghan; and Meiko (Eiko Yamamoto), pliant and thoroughly committed to the school’s vision. Eli (Rick Eldredge) can barely stop doing his yoga stretches long enough to interject his opinions, and newcomer Carina (Val Sinckler), a savvy black lesbian whose race and perceived economic status are referred to as desirable elements for the committee’s diversity and inclusiveness.
Initial exchanges make you think, This is So Berkeley, with discussions around gender pronouns, terms like “transracial adoptee,” and cluing Carina in on the committee’s devotion to consensus decisions. Don likes to end each meeting with a reading from the poet Rumi. But then the bomb is dropped, when a letter arrives from the health department that one of the school’s students has contracted Mumps, and all un-vaccinated students must immediately be quarantined.
The raging controversy surrounding vaccination rears up, especially since this is a private school with a significant number of unvaccinated children. But Spector carefully balances the argument, not with statistics so much as stirring monologues that enlist compassion and understanding on all sides, encouraging suspension of judgment for the moment. And in one fabulous scene, the group tries to hold a virtual town-hall meeting via Facebook, with both hilarious and disturbing results. The use of projections allows audience to simultaneously see the Facebook chat and hear the group’s flailing attempts to rein in the comments— exceptionally funny and all too familiar.
However you feel about vaccination turns out not to be the true point of the play— rather, a “failure to communicate” becomes the prevailing theme, as we witness each dealing between characters run afoul of the best intentions, and the inability to reach any compromise solution. Perhaps you’ll end up siding with Carina, or with Suzanne, or Meiko— or you’ll recognize Don’s nod to necessity, or Eli’s conditional generosity. Wherever you end up, whichever side wins, someone’s victory is someone else’s defeat— and how do we measure the effect of that in our modern culture, the ripples of dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement?
Actors are well-matched to characters, and deliver a difficult script with utter believability so that you feel you know these people from real life. Is everything perfect? No, but nothing detracts from the overall impact and quality. The sparring, sometimes gentle and sometimes fierce, conveys passion and commitment to the characters and the text. Exchanges between McKereghan and Sinckler are particularly thorny and poignant, and altogether genuine.
Production values live up to the acting, with nicely detailed scenic design by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen and down-to-earth staging by director Elizabeth Craven. There’s no credit supplied for the projections in the chat scene, but they’re cleverly done. Costumes by Pamela J. Johnson say character in subtle ways, and lighting by Eddy Hansen shifts times of day with ease. Sound design by Jessica Johnson deserves special kudos, often making me laugh to hear the song choices.
Absolutely brilliant and topical, with humor and heartbreak— but timeless, too, turning a spotlight on our efforts to connect with empathy and understanding.An absolute Must-See!— Jeanie Smith
By Jonathan Spector. Presented by Spreckels Theatre Company through Sept. 22, 2019
Thu 9/19 at 7:30pm; Fri/Sat at 7:30pm, Sun at 2:00pm
Tickets: $20-24; Senior and Under-18 discounts
Photos by Jeff Thomas