Unhappy in Its Own Way

1. February, 2010 Theater No comments

Aurora’s first main stage production to come out of its annual Global Age Project new works series, Joel Drake Johnson’s The First Grade isn’t at all what the title or the set might lead one to expect. Nina Ball’s scenic design is themed around a first grade classroom, with a hand-printed alphabet banner, inspirational posters on the wall and lockers that look drawn in crayon or chalk. Wall panels rotate to form a kitchen interior or the exterior of a house.

Julia Brothers, Warren David Keith and Rebecca Schweitzer in The First Grade. Photo by David Allen

The play opens and closes with classroom scenes with the children heard but not seen, nicely evoked by Ted Crimy’s sound design and whatever audience members join in speaking when they’re spoken to. But although the fiftysomething first grade teacher Sydney talks several times about the new vocabulary words her students like to bring in to the class, the school setting doesn’t have much to do with the story as a whole.

The heart of it is in Sydney’s home, where she still lives with her estranged former husband of many years. Currently staying with them is their daughter Angie, overwhelmed by motherhood and resenting her child. But before their situation can really be laid out, let alone progress in any way, the story is hijacked by a melodramatic subplot that doesn’t do the main storyline any favors.

What really makes it work in artistic director Tom Ross’s world premiere production is two outstanding performances. Despite being weighed down with some overlong expository speeches, Julia Brothers is immensely likeable as the maddeningly forthright, loquacious Sydney, with a bundle of neurotic energy and a knack for getting into other people’s business and getting them to talk about whatever upsets them most. Warren David Keith is marvelous as her ex-husband Nat, an alcoholic (“working alcoholic,” as he insists more than once) with stooped posture and a steady stream of world-weary sarcasm. He seems very at home in his unhappiness, scowling and making cutting remarks as he fixes himself another drink.

The scenes between Sydney and Nat are the best part of both the performance and of the writing, swaying back and forth between passive-aggressive nudges and heart-to-heart confessions in a beautiful mixture of small cruelties and the easy connection that goes along with decades of cohabitation. The sense of history between the two is palpable.

Rebecca Schweitzer’s snappish exasperation with her mother is totally believable (and understandable) as Angie, who has her unseen young son on Ritalin because she just can’t deal with him and has moved back home because she doesn’t know what to do.

Tina Sanchez overdoes it as Sydney’s physical therapist, Mora, broadly indicating when her character’s hiding something or putting up a front with punctuated pauses and stiff smiles. It’s when Sydney starts poking around into Mora’s failed marriage that things fall off the rails into a shrill dispute about domestic violence, culminating with Mora and her estranged husband and father-in-law battling it out in the driveway. Paul Santiago gives a brief but affecting turn as a proud father who speaks passionately on his son’s behalf, despite the fact that the son (an agitated Adrian Anchondo) then has to translate for him because he only speaks in Spanish.

Johnson seems to be trying to cover too much ground in the play’s 90 minutes without intermission, and it’s hard to see what he’s trying to accomplish with this tangent into someone else’s soap opera, unless it’s just to illustrate to the principals, “Jeez, and we thought we had problems.” To some extent that’s exactly what it does. Nobody’s problems get resolved, and at the end the family is more or less where it started, except that they’ve aired things out a bit.

Because not much else really happens along the way, you could say that without that middle part of other people’s business there isn’t much of a play, just a few marvelous moments between intriguing characters. That’s true, but there isn’t much of a play with it either. More than anything, it just feels like giving the characters something to do to pass the time.

The First Grade
Through February 28
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Twelfth show of 2010, attended January 29.

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