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/.





A note to readers

After three months on hiatus, Theater Dogs is once again back in action!

I was in Sacramento working for an excellent newspaper, but now I’m back in San Francisco and happily on the theater beat once again. At the risk of sounding sappy, can I just say how much I missed it?

Oh, I saw some good theater: August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Sacramento Theatre Company (starring one of my favorite Bay Area leading ladies, C. Kelly Wright) and Margaret Edson’s Wit at the B Street Theatre (starring another favorite Bay Area leading lady, Julia Brothers).

And I managed to see a few things in the Bay Area. Couldn’t miss Wicked — leading lady Teal Wicks is as good as I’d hoped she’d be. And Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (the vibrator play) was one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. No wonder director Les Waters is taking it to Broadway.

But now I’ll see as much as I can across our theatrical compass, from Marin down to San Jose, from San Francisco to Walnut Creek.

Very happy to be back.

Send me theater info, questions, complaints at chiatovich@gmail.com.

Review: `Evie’s Waltz’


The cast of the Magic Theatre’s Evie’s Waltz includes, from left, Marielle Heller, Darren Bridgett and Julia Brothers. The Carter W. Lewis play continues through Dec. 7. Photos by www.davidallenstudio.com.


Tension mounts in Lewis’ modern `Waltz’
««« ½


Carter W. Lewis’ Evie’s Waltz, now at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, is a tense, frightening thriller that dredges up provocative issues about life in 21st-century America.

The fact that the 90-minute play is so uncomfortable – I can’t remember sweating so much during a play, and it wasn’t the unseasonably warm weather – is a testament to how well the show is produced.

Magic artistic director Loretta Greco, in her first directorial outing since joining the theater, has cast the show brilliantly and guides her trio of actors through Lewis’ taut, fraught examination of guns, teens and the detonation of the nuclear family.

Erik Flatmo created the patio set on which the play takes place, and from what we can see, this is a gorgeous suburban home surrounded by woods and upper-middle-class affluence. We can only peek into the house itself, but we can tell it is well appointed in every way, as are its inhabitants, Clay (Darren Bridgett) and Gloria (Julia Brothers), who dress nicely even for an informal early autumn barbecue on the deck (costumes are by Fumiko Bielefeldt).

York Kennedy’s lighting design takes on extra importance in Lewis’ story. The warm, inviting early evening light gives way to looming night in the real time of the play, and the darkness is significant in many ways. Kennedy’s lighting design (with assistance from Sara Huddleston’s Strauss-infused sound design) also has some chilling, highly theatrical surprises that remind us just what’s at stake here.

What begins as another white suburban angst drama – Clay and Gloria’s 16-year-old son, Danny, was suspended that morning for bringing a gun to school – turns into a mystery and then an outright thriller.

Clay emerges as the bleeding heart of the family. As he skewers vegetables and brushes them with his soy-citrus marinade, he defends Danny, while Gloria, sipping from her gin and tonic, declares that the boy upstairs in his room is no longer her son. “I want to smother him in his sleep,” she declares.

Then Evie (Marielle Heller), daughter of a hard-drinking single mother in the neighborhood and Danny’s girlfriend, arrives. “Mom’s drunk, so I came instead,” Evie says, just before Gloria and Clay notice the blood on her shoulder.

The tension ratchets up from there as deceptions and plans are revealed, and ghosts of Columbine and random acts of teen violence flood the stage.

Who’s to blame for teen violence? Is it the parents or the parents of the parents? And can a parent really stop loving a child? Lewis doesn’t have any answers, but he creates interesting questions. He shades his female characters beautifully – both Gloria and Evie are far more complex than they first seem – but he doesn’t let Clay develop much beyond the big-hearted, caretaker he appears to be.

That said, the performances are outstanding. Brothers brings incredible depth to Gloria, a smart, mean woman whose plan to be an incredible mother didn’t quite pan out. There’s bitterness and tenderness in her, and it’s an extraordinary thing to watch her succumb to the power of the teenagers she loathes.

Bridgett takes Clay to a powerful emotional level even as the character attempts to put a positive spin on a situation that couldn’t possibly end well. His capacity for denial is immense, but so is his need to be a good father.

Heller has the hardest of the three roles because playing a loose canon 16-year-old and making the audience care about her is a tall order. Heller does it but never without letting us forget that, even with her considerable brains and bruised humanity, Evie is someone we need to fear.

I have rarely been so uncomfortable watching a play as I was during Evie’s Waltz. Fully recognizing how extraordinarily well produced, written and acted it was, I honestly couldn’t wait for it to be over.


Evie’s Waltz continues through Dec. 21 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$45 ($15 for students). Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.