Aurora’s Heaven falls well short

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The women of Anthony Clarvoe’s Our Practical Heaven are (from left) Joy Carlin as Vera, Lauren Spencer as Magz, Julia Brothers as Willa, Blythe Foster as Suze, Anne Darragh as Sasha and Adrienne Walters as Leez. Below: Willa shows granddaughter Leez that she’s the “bird of the day” in the Aurora Theatre Company production. Photos by David Allen

There’s a lot to like in the world premiere of Anthony Clarvoe’s family drama Our Practical Heaven at Aurora Theatre Company. Laughs come frequently, the production itself – full of light and space – is lovely and the six women in the cast are all quite interesting.

Many of the funniest lines come from the character Willa, a ruthless titan of business who has a thorny relationship with her 20something daughter, Magz. Willa is caught between being the warm and thoughtful person she wants to be and the cold, heartless businessperson she is forced to be much of the time. That internal conflict makes the character crackle, and it helps things considerably that she’s played by the always reliable Julia Brothers.

When asked how she could possibly like a certain person, Willa answers, “She makes me laugh,” to which her questioner says, “You’re not laughing.” “I’m in hysterics,” Willa rejoins. “I’m also very sad. This is the net result.”

If only there were more of that snap, both dark and comic, in Clarvoe’s play. Clearly he’s after a Chekhovian mood as he gathers family members – some related by blood, others by choice – at the nearly seaside home of Vera, the matriarch of a large clan who is grieving the loss of her husband.

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Joy Carlin as Vera has some very funny moments – especially when she defies her children’s expectations by not only not tumbling over a box left on the floor but kicking it across the room – but like most of the characters here, she doesn’t have enough to do, enough complexity to play. Vera doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with any of the women in her house, not daughter Sasha (Anne Darragh), not honorary daughter Willa, nor with granddaughters Leez (Adrienne Walters) and Suze (Blythe Foster) or honorary granddaughter Magz (Lauren Spencer).

The one defining element of Vera, other than occasional flashes of sass, is that she is a birder and has made bird watching a mandatory activity for the entire family. Why? “You’ve got to have something,” Vera says. “Some families drink.” After a while, you kinda wish this family imbibed a few more cocktails.

It’s easy to see why Vera isn’t connected to these women because aside from Willa, who has a tangible life beyond the country house, none of these women feels real. They come off rather like stiff characters in a play who are asked to be disagreeable much of the time.

Director Allen McKelvey’s production feels forced, as if he and his actors were pushing hard to squeeze more out of Clarvoe’s play than is actually there. When the end of Act 1 comes, for instance, it’s quite a surprise because nothing has really happened. We haven’t earned an intermission, yet here it is. Act 2 throws in a few more complications but no real drama.

The end of the play feels a lot like the end of Act 1: seriously? It’s over? I felt like I wanted to have some empathy, some connection to this family but I just didn’t. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing about the modern world and its abundant means of communication and its actual dearth of communicating. Our Practical Heaven, with its projected text messages, surly teenagers and cranky adults, feels like one more message zipping through the airwaves without enough to say.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Anthony Clarvoe about creating Our Practical Heaven for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Anthony Clarvoe’s Our Practical Heaven continues through March 3 at the Auorra Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

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