Quite Becoming

30. December, 2010 Theater No comments


Show #126: Becoming Julia Morgan, The Julia Morgan Project, December 19.

Dave Garrett, Sally Clawson and Janis Stevens in Becoming Julia Morgan. Photo by Benjamin Privitt.

By Sam Hurwitt

I’d been aware of Becoming Julia Morgan for some time before it opened in Berkeley; playwright Belinda Taylor is the former editor-in-chief of Theatre Bay Area magazine, the post I hold today, and she had mentioned the play to me in the past. But I didn’t know what to expect from a play about the architect of so many lovely local buildings from the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts down to Hearst Castle. I don’t often like these kinds of biographical shows, not because I don’t enjoy fact-based entertainment but because they’re usually done hamhandedly, but this one is quite well done.

Conceived originally for the Julia Morgan Center and originally debuting in Sacrament in 2006, Becoming Julia Morgan is now finishing up a run at the Berkeley City Club, another beautiful Berkeley building designed by Morgan. It’s directed by Barbara Oliver, who was artistic director of Aurora Theatre Company when it was based in the City Club, and it’s her first time directing in the space since Aurora moved into its own theater in 2001.

Born in San Francisco, raised in Oakland, and educated at UC Berkeley and the École des Beaux Arts in Paris (where she was the first woman to graduate with a degree in architecture), Morgan was a very private person, and Taylor’s way of getting around that is a clever one. In the play is pursued by a San Francisco Examiner reporter who keeps after her until she agrees to be interviewed, not just once but repeatedly for a book about her.  He wants to know how she became the architect she is, the first female professional architect in California–thus the title of the show. (For some reason there’s a trend of “Becoming” titles lately, especially for semi-biographical endeavors like the film Becoming Jane and the recent plays Becoming Walt Whitman at 6th Street Playhouse and Becoming Britney at Center REP.)

“I’m not one of those talking architects,” Morgan says at least twice in close succession, and even once she gets to talking about herself she still makes us believe that, because she’s just telling stories the way people do, and keeping the subject to things that actually have to do with her career, from college onward. About any personal relationships she keeps mum, and her family only appears when it’s relevant to a turning point in her professional life. (Only one of her siblings appears as a character, for instance, although others are mentioned in passing.) From there the story flows fairly easily through flashbacks and the events of the “present day” years in the 1930s when she’s working on Hearst Castle and has a major medical crisis.

It’s a good script that gets Morgan’s story across without ever feeling like it’s spoon-feeding us exposition, which sounds like a simple thing but is no small feat in a show like this, and Oliver’s crisp direction keeps it flowing smoothly. But what really holds the show together is Janis Stevens’s marvelous performance as Julia Morgan. At first she’s simply a non-nonsense, unassailably confident older woman who’s exasperated and a little amused with her interviewer’s impudence, but as the play goes on she also beautifully captures young Julia’s teenage energy and enthusiasm, and the slightly dampened but no less driven young woman she became after a few setbacks and frustrations.

In fact, the cast is terrific all around, its three other members playing many roles. Dave Garrett is superbly larger than life as William Randolph Hearst, bursting at the seams with big ideas, and he also shines as Julia’s encouraging professor Bernard Maybeck, her concerned father, an admiring but condescending French architect, the blustering Bay Area architect John Galen Howard, and the snide god Janus (more on that later). Paul Baird has subtly oily charm as breezy reporter Jerry Mac, a touching melancholy air as Julia’s loyal, underachieving brother Avery, and a charming cameo as Charlie Chaplin. Sally Clawson shows great versatility as Hearst’s poised, philanthropic mother and his squeaky-voiced starlet girlfriend Marion Davies, plus Julia’s indulgent mother Eliza, chatty school friends in Berkeley and Paris, Jerry’s somewhat mousy wife and the Roman goddess Vesta (despite unconvincing wigs in a couple of the parts).

One element that seems distinctly out of place is a series of appearances by Roman gods. The two-faced god Janus appears in a dream, played by Garrett in a mask, heckling Julia while she’s being inducted to the Pantheon of Distinguished Architects. Later Vesta, goddess of the hearth, defends Julia from Janus’s taunts, played by Clawson with a thick Irish accent. (Who knew Jupiter had an Irish sister?) The gods get some funny lines, but these mythic intrusions don’t really fit the rest of the piece.

They do make it easier to wrap things up, as Vesta returns to give us the low-down on what happened to everyone after the events of the play. But the ending needs work in general, as it peters out in a limp sort of epilogue in which an old man and his granddaughter enter the room we’re sitting in and marvel at the architecture around us and how cool Julia Morgan was. But the rough landing is easy to forgive after such a delightful trip through the life of a hard woman to get to know that gives us a great sense of her personality (at least as we can imagine we know it through her character in the play), her aesthetic, and especially her indefatigable determination.

Becoming Julia Morgan plays through January 9 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. http://juliamorganproject.org

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