Oh, Brothers — an ode to Julia Brothers

First Grade

Julia Brothers floors ’em in Joel Drake Johnson’s The First Grade at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company.
Rebecca Schweitzer is in the background. Photo by David Allen


The Bay Area is blessed with an abundance of theatrical talent. Spend any time at all in local theaters, and that becomes clear pretty quickly.

What’s even better is that sometimes we get really lucky, and that theatrical talent decides to stick around for a while rather than bouncing off to New York or Los Angeles. There are a number of actors, directors and writers whose names alone make me want to show up at one production or another.

High on that list of MVPs is Julia Brothers, who has performed everywhere from San Jose Repertory Theatre to TheatreWorks to the Magic to Marin Theatre Company. She steps on stage, and you know you’re in for something special. She’s totally in control, always interesting and continuously surprising. There’s a grounded quality to her characters that makes them real, even when they’re outrageous.

Last year, while briefly exiled to Sacramento, I had the opportunity to see Brothers star in Margaret Edson’s Wit at the B Street Theatre, and though the production surrounding here was hit and miss, Brothers was a lightning bolt of brilliance.

At the moment, you can see Brothers doing her thing in the world premiere of Joel Drake Johnson’s funny, heartening The First Grade at the Aurora Theatre Company. Brothers stars as Sydney, a first-grade teacher whose control of her classroom is in direct opposition to her lack of control in the real world. Her grown daughter (Rebecca Schweitzer) and grandson have moved back to what she calls “the house of baggage,” and though she has divorced her husband (Warren David Keith), he’s still living on the other side of the house. Suffering from arthritis, Sydney goes to see a physical therapist (Tina Sanchez) whose soap operatic personal life immediately triggers Sydney’s Good Samaritan meddler button.

Brothers’ Sydney is cranky and crackly, but watch her in the classroom when she raises her right hand as a signal to quiet her students. She’s a benign but powerful dictator, and she truly loves her students. Sydney takes true delight in the power of words, especially the ones her students bring her like show-and-tell gems: congenial, solipsism, plethora, pertinacious. She’s more ferocious when it comes to her testy daughter and boozy ex-husband. It’s no wonder she wants to help the therapist because she seems to be unable to help anyone else in her personal realm. During a painful therapy session, she rails against a popular slogan. “I have plenty of pain and not one ounce of gain!” she yowls.

Brothers shows us how tough Sydney can be but also how tender. During an intense conversation with her daughter, Angie, the subject turns increasingly dark to the point of a rather shocking admission. Sydney’s smart-aleck warrior shield falls away, and a compassionate, frightened mother’s face emerges. It’s a beautiful moment – one of many in director Tom Ross’ sharply etched production.

There are laughs amid the substance, real life amid the theatricality, and Brothers is there at the center of it, doing her usual, extraordinary balancing job.


The First Grade continues through Feb. 28 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $15-$55. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org/.





Aurora announces 18th season

Aurora Theatre Company artistic director Tom Ross announced today his Berkeley company’s 18th season, which stems from the theme “Family and Fortune.” In addition to classics and newer works, the season includes a world premiere by Joel Drake Johnson (pictured at right).


The season opens in August with Clifford Odets’ 1935 Awake and Sing, directed by Joy Carlin. The classic play about an extended Jewish family in the Bronx, had a hit Broadway revival three years ago. Carlin, something of a Bay Area legend as both actor and director, first helmed this play for Berkeley Repertory Theatre 24 years ago. (Run dates: Aug. 21-Sept. 27)

From the classic to the profane: Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig continues the season in October. The play wonders what happens when a good-looking guy falls for a plus-size woman. Barbara Damashek directs. (Oct. 30-Dec. 6)

The holidays will rock and roll once again with the return of last year’s hit The Coverlettes Cover Christmas. Volcaists Darby Gould, Katie Guthorn and Carol Bozzio Littleton reprise their roles as a fictitious ’60s girl group making the season bright with beehives and tight harmonies. (Dec. 9-27)

The new year brings the world premiere of Chicago playwright Johnson’s The First Grade, which originated as one of Aurora’s Global Age project winners last season. Ross directs this journey of a woman whose attempts to do something good lead her into chaos involving first graders, a depressed daughter, a Ritalin-addicted grandson and the ex-husband who still shares her home. (Jan. 22-Feb. 28)

Barbara Oliver, one of the Aurora’s founding members, returns to direct Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, in a new version by David Eldridge created for London’s Donmar Warehouse. In what sounds like a story ripped from today’s headlines, the Borkman family is struggling since the imprisonment of John Gabriel Borkman, a bank manager who speculated illegally with his clients’ money, ultimately losing the financial investments of hundred of people. (April 2-May 9)

Closing the season is the Bay Area premiere of Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate directed by Robin Stanton, who has been seen at the Aurora with Betrayed, The Busy World Is Hushed and Permanent Collection. In this play, dubbed “one of the Top 10 plays of the year” by Entertainment Weekly, three teenage misfits in Salem, Ore., discover they’re connected by a sex scandal that has rocked their home town. (June 11-July 18)

Subscriptions to the Aurora’s new season range from $130-$235. Single tickets are $15-$55. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information. All performances are at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.