Women on the Verge

2. February, 2013 Theater No comments

Our Practical Heaven is a sentimental journey oddly devoid of emotion. It features three generations of the women of a family congregating at the paradisiacal beach house of the eldest to birdwatch and lounge around on the beach. Grandma Vera’s husband has recently died, and her daughter Sasha is absurdly surprised that her mom didn’t follow him into the grave. Also there are Sasha’s daughters, twentysomething Suze and teenage Leez, plus another woman Sasha’s age, Willa, and her daughter Magz. But the young’uns are in a world of their own, texting each other about what idiots their moms are, and the mothers don’t seem to think much about them either.

Lauren Spencer with Julia Brothers, Anne Darragh, Joy Carlin, Adrienne Walters and Blythe Foster in Our Practical Heaven. Photo by David Allen.

Local playwright Anthony Clarvoe’s Heaven came out of Aurora Theatre Company’s 2011 Global Age Project festival of staged readings, and it’s the third GAP play to go on to the company’s main stage season. Playing every other night of the week while this year’s festival goes on every Monday night in February, the world premiere of Clarvoe’s play is directed by Allen McKelvey, who also staged the original reading, and uses several of the same cast members.

Mikiko Uesugi’s set displays a gray background that extends in huge batwings off to either side, because clearly this show is about Batman. Jagged dark lines converge around the edges of the set like the twisted branches of a leafless tree against a cloudy sky. The backdrop actually functions as a screen for video projections by Micah J. Stieglitz, displaying text-message conversations, impressionistic backgrounds, or fanciful animations of swarming zeroes and ones—because, you see, the kids today are always on their smart phones. Clifford Caruthers sets the scene with wave sounds and birdsong, as well as jazzy numbers by Dave Brubeck and Madeleine Peyroux.

Sadly, there’s no Batman in the show after all. In fact, there are no men at all. There are apparently guys in the family—Sasha has a husband and siblings we never see—but they’re not around.

At first it’s unclear what the relationship between Sasha and Willa is. Initially it seems like maybe they’re lovers, because they’re obviously very close but don’t appear to be related, but no, Willa is an “honorary sister” of Sasha’s who was unofficially adopted into the family years ago. Their closeness is evident more in their ease around each other (to the limited extent that either of them ever really lets down her guard) than in any real visible rapport.

Their daughters Suze and Magz have an even closer connection that really does feel like a romantic one. They’re always carrying on their own private conversation in text messages, and Blythe Foster’s Suze especially seems to regard Lauren Spencer’s Magz with longing and a bit of clinginess. They call each other sisters too, but the way their relationship is played you keep expecting them to kiss.

Magz has some kind of autoimmune condition that keeps her in constant pain, and Spencer very realistically portrays the slight stiffness of her movements and slight winces without overdoing it. Magz is formerly a dancer, and the most effective moment in the whole show comes when she loses herself in Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” dancing to the jazz with bliss hampered only slightly by her physical limitations, until she makes one wrong move and collapses in agony.

We’re told a lot about the characters, but nothing that really gels into a credible portrait, particularly because they don’t act much like the people we’re told they are. Willa makes a big deal about how she’s an evil corporate shark all the rest of the time and this house is the only place where she can be her real, kind self—who comes off as kind of a doormat, actually, always cleaning up after people and trying to soothe them. But Julia Brothers does give us one glimpse of how formidable Willa can be when she takes an impromptu meeting on her cell phone and chews the hell out of her subordinates, while everyone else sits uncomfortably around her pretending not to listen.

Sasha’s youngest daughter Leez is supposed to be a weirdo, but as played by Adrienne Walters she seems like a perfectly normal, pretty teenager, maybe a little withdrawn because nobody likes to listen to her but essentially a cipher. Apparently she has an active fantasy life and some trouble telling her dreams from reality, but the dreams of hers we see or hear about are so prosaic and humdrum that it hardly seems to matter. She dreams conversations between the others where they actually express their innermost thoughts, but these conversations aren’t all that different from the conversations they actually have

Her older sister Suze is an activist who works full-time on a vague mission “to save Appalachia” (always phrased the same way), but both as written and as played by Foster, she doesn’t seem particularly idealistic, just recalcitrant and gratuitously snotty, especially with her mother. The snarky commentary she and the other youngsters keep up in text messages about their mothers behind their back is just plain nasty and not at all clever, though of course they giggle about it because they’re all jerks.

Other than her ailment, Magz is defined only by her restlessness. She can never stay in one place too long, and she always arrives late and odorous from her “hobo” life of backpacking on the road. She also talks a lot about how people are destroying the environment, always in a fretful, accusatory way.

Anne Darragh’s Sasha is obviously a worrywart and a scold, and of everyone there she’s the most “what you see is what you get” character. The play explores her ties with Willa a little, and her oddly adversarial relationship with her daughters, but Sasha herself just kind of stumbles through it.

She’s particularly worried about her mother, Vera, about her failing vision and the state of her mind after a series of strokes, but as played by Joy Carlin, Vera doesn’t seem the least bit hampered. Sure, she can’t quite recall why she’s kept many things in her box of keepsakes, but she’s filled with such easygoing joie de vivre that she’s easily the most grounded and likeable character in the whole play, and the one who comes closest to seeming like a person.  And like the grandma in 4000 Miles—the play currently at American Conservatory Theater—she’s an old radical whose recently deceased husband seems to have been more radical still. (This part I can identify with, because my grandma was also a radical, albeit more so than her husband.) She’s even held onto a rock that she decided not to throw at a demonstration many years ago.

There’s a lot of rhapsodizing in the play—about birds, about the view, about how great Vera is and what a refuge this house is—all of which is a bit mawkish and all too easy to tune out. Clarvoe’s dialogue is strangely stiff throughout, which exacerbates the ill-definedness of the speakers. There are a few decent speeches, such as the one about the rock and another musing on the nature of the afterlife, even if it’s nothing I haven’t heard before. Despite all the sniping, philosophizing, and forced frolicking, it’s all pretty tedious because there’s no particular reason to care about these characters whom we can’t believe in, and wouldn’t like much if we did.

Our Practical Heaven
Through March 3
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #11 of 2013, attended February 1.

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