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.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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/.