Not sure how deeply to become involved in your friends’ and neighbors’ lives? Go see Aurora Theatre’s The First Grade, a cautionary tale by Joel Drake Johnson, which examines the consequences of fully participating in the world around us.
The First Grade offers a glimpse at the issues and perils we face when we let others past our defenses, both physical and emotional.
All of the play’s interactions ring true. The characters depicted are clueless as to how to make real contact, and the audience witnesses many painful moments as they make the attempt.
The standout in a uniformly fine cast is Julia Brothers, whose paranoid cookie-hiding, white-lying, altruistic Sydney is so very vulnerable that we want to hug her and tell her that everything will be OK.
She establishes herself early on as a Type A worrywart, who tries to rescue Mora, a physical therapist who might need more help than Sydney can give. Her character was totally identifiable, especially to the mostly over 40 audience.
The word ‘whatever,’ as used by Sydney’s ex-husband Nat (Warren David Keith) and daughter Angie (Rebecca Schweitzer) is a metaphor for humanity’s apathy. Sydney’s attempts to help others are mocked by Nat: “Your mother’s taking care of her village.”
The play’s title refers to how we are all novices at understanding each other, and we are always reduced to six-year-old behavior, some of us running toward life with arms outspread, and some of us sulking on the schoolyard.
Sydney sees her six-year-old students as total participants in their world, however limited their context—they’re “this close to the center of life.”
Tina Sanchez’ Mora hits just the right note as the overly glib, yet tightly wound physical therapist hiding a dark secret. When she repeatedly says: “I’m fine,” we know that is far from true.
The cast also includes Adrian Anchondo and Paul Santiago.
A few of Johnson’s choice lines:
“You were zenning, dear. You can’t just stop zenning.”
“Selfish is the new black.”
Johnson takes us to the dark side of interpersonal involvement and back again. The final act deteriorates into a bilingual shouting match, and a gruesome end to Sydney’s misplaced altruism.
Overall, this play is a not-to-be missed theater experience, if only to enjoy Johnson’s tour-de-force writing skill.
Playwright Joel Drake Johnson is a key player in the Global Age Project. His play, A Guide for the Perplexed will be produced as a staged reading this evening.
Aurora conceived the Global Age Project to prompt theater professionals to address humanity’s possible futures in their works.
The First Grade runs through February 28, with shows at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and two shows on Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Aurora Theatre is at 2081 Addison Street at Shattuck, a few doors down from Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets, call (510) 843-4822.