Nestled up high in the Berkeley hills, the fictional elementary school Eureka Day overlooks the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Any parallels you might draw between a real school in a similar location and its appearance in Jonathan Spector’s Eureka Day (through May 20 at the Aurora Theatre) are intentional. The setting might make the play sound like it’s meant for parents with young children but, before dismissing it out of hand, wait until the characters start to converse. The playwright delights in, mocks, honors and replicates the colloquial speech of a specific place and time — Berkeley, circa now.
The play begins as one of the parents arranges five small student chairs in a circle for an evening meeting. Eli (Teddy Spencer) is lanky and languidly relaxing into an early retirement with his tech money. Once seated, he performs yoga stretches in a seemingly disinterested manner, revealing carefully curated flashes of his fit body. He’s showing off for Meiko’s (Charisse Loriaux) benefit, a single mother with whom he’s having an affair. They and three other parents are gathering for the school’s steering committee meeting.
Carina (Elizabeth Carter) is the newest member. Initially, we see the others from her point of view. As Don (Rolf Saxon), Suzanne (Lisa Anne Porter) and Meiko take their seats to discuss the agenda, Carina’s eyes gradually open wider and wider. At first, she takes in the conversational genuflection with incredulity. And then, as she watches the ever-increasing range of over-accommodation, Carina covers her mouth to help her hide and suppress her laughter.
Under normal circumstances, Eureka Day’s inclusionary policies have curdled the school’s cultural life into something as aggressively neutral as lowfat cottage cheese. You can read what Carina’s thinking about it by looking at the way Elizabeth Carter smiles. But for a bureaucracy to function, even one with the best and most liberal intentions, not everyone’s needs cannot be met. Essentially, stasis must take the place of argument, lest anyone be offended. That is, until an outbreak of mumps arrives on campus.
Although Don is the group’s de facto leader, it’s Suzanne who actually holds the committee’s reins. Rolf Saxon’s smooth, silken line readings record his passive resistance to taking sides. He’s a pleasure to hear from start to finish. His performance reaches an apotheosis of unwavering equivocation that allows Suzanne to dominate the meetings. Lisa Anne Porter elongates her character’s phrasing so that they’re imbued with unspoken, often tightly held-in emotions that ultimately can’t be contained.
She and everyone else’s carefully concealed feelings surface after Meiko’s child, who was not vaccinated against the disease, contracts the mumps. Suzanne represents a crucial fissure in Eureka Day’s ideological approach to school policy. For reasons that will eventually be made clear, she comes out as adamantly against vaccination and opposes any amendment that would prohibit unvaccinated children from attending the school. During an emergency meeting in which the parent committee must decide whether or not to keep their doors open, Carina and Suzanne make it clear that they stand on opposite sides of the debate.
After the meeting points to two possible outcomes — Carina’s or Suzanne’s — the group convenes a Facebook Live session with all of the school’s parents. The debate begins with the same permissive attitudes that marked the play’s start and then descends into a hilarious maelstrom of hurled insults. It’s the first time I’ve seen a play — or film, for that matter — that has so successfully integrated the effect of social media, in real time, on our un-virtual lives. The scene also drolly registers the meaninglessness of liking someone’s online comments.
In outline, a drama about school vaccinations sounds inordinately dry and humorless. In practice, Eureka Day shifts between comedy and outrageous farce before landing as an affecting portrait of a community in distress.
Eureka Day, through May 20, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. $33-$65; 510-843-3822 or auoratheatre.org