Flying high in Aurora’s Mud Blue Sky

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Sam (Rebecca Dines, left center) sends Jonathan (Devin O’Brien, center right) on an errand as Angie (Laura Jane Bailey, right) enjoys some fine cognac and Beth (Jamie Jones, left) pours herself another one in the Bay Area Premiere of Marisa Wegrzyn’s Mud Blue Sky at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Jones as Beth straightens the bowtie worn by O’Brien’s Jonathan on his bizarre prom night. Photos by David Allen

There’s easy comedy and titillation to be had in choosing to explore the lives of flight attendants. You could blithely whip up a story detailing the lives we imagine those high-fliers live, with their easy access to great cities, hot coworkers and the occasional randy passenger. That story might be fun, but in truth, the days of “coffee, tea or me” are long past, and flying is a grind for everyone, from passengers to crew, and that may actually be the more interesting story.

Marisa Wegrzyn’s Mud Blue Sky, now in an extended run through Oct. 3 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, tries to have it both ways – swinging comedy, down-to-earth drama – and succeeds mightily. There are farcical elements in play, and cognac and marijuana are enjoyed, and there are some hearty, satisfying laughs to be had, but what lingers in the air after the show is a sense of connection, comradeship and workaday resilience among the characters.

Unlike those “flight”sploitation movies of the ’60s and ’70s, there is nothing glamorous about the two flight attendants we meet at a cheap motel in the purgatory between O’Hare and Chicago. Beth (Jamie Jones) has a terrible back and won’t do anything about it except self-medicate with pot, which she gets from a teenage supplier, Jonathan (Devin S. O’Brien) somewhere behind the motel. Sam (Rebecca Dines) seems to be more of a partier. She wants to go to the bar, meet up with an old friend and strap on the old feedbag at IHOP (“Bacon!”). But she’s not as breezy as she seems. She’s got a 17-year-old son back at home in St. Louis, and he’s on his own an awful lot, given her schedule, and that weighs on her.

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What’s so interesting about Wegrzyn’s play is that it really does feel like a slice of life we don’t get to see very often. For instance, Beth is what’s known as a “slam locker.” She gets to the hotel room, slams the door and locks it. But on this night, Beth’s locked door won’t be enough. She’s drawn out to meet Jonathan and make their usual deal. The high schooler is wearing a tux because it’s prom night, and he’s available to help Beth score because he has been ditched by his date.

Details about the lives of these characters begin to trickle out, and while there’s not high drama here, there’s compassionate drama filled with day-to-day realities of just trying to get through and deal with the people you have to deal with and maybe something more (better?). We’ve all encountered flight attendants who seem weary or who have their heads somewhere else, and taking a peek into the fictional lives of these flight attendants fills in the back story very nicely.

As the evening wears on, Jonathan ends up in Beth’s hotel room (the set by Kate Boyd is so perfect you want to call housekeeping for an emergency deep cleaning) and there’s a new guest: Angie (Laura Jane Bailey), who trained with Beth and who used to be a key member of the crew. But she gained some weight and was promptly fired. She’s been living with and taking care of her mother since and hasn’t been able to find another job.

Bailey’s Angie has a long monologue toward the end of this 95-minute one-act, and it’s as sweet as it is heartbreaking. She misses the connection with her former co-workers and passengers. She longs for the chance encounters with fun and kindness and outrageousness that her job afforded her, and this short visit with her old friends (who have not been great about keeping in touch since her departure) is a boost to her psyche.

Director Tom Ross does superb detail with work with his wonderful actors here. Nothing feels rushed, and the actors give us characters whose lives feel lived in. That’s why the humor can spark so effectively one minute and the pathos can register deeply the next.

Jones’ weary Beth keeps trying to be a stick in the mud, but fun and empathy continually prevent her from giving in completely to her misery. She has a real (if somewhat reluctant) connection with the Eeyore-like Jonathan, expertly played by O’Brien, whose slumpy posture and teenage galumphing are scarily accurate and endearing.

Dines’ Sam is peppery and bright, which is to say she’s bursting with energy, but she’s also prone to stinging from time to time. Sam’s participation in the evening’s festivities takes a surprising, provocative turn that takes yet another surprising turn. Credit Wegrzyn’s intriguing script for keeping us guessing as to where this story will fly next.

Mud Blue Sky has the crackle of good television (a compliment in this golden age of television) but the rhythm and heft of good theater. These skies are friendly enough, but it’s the turbulence that really matters.

Mud Blue Sky continues through Oct. 3 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Aurora’s Fifth of July more cherry bomb than firework

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Ken Talley (Craig Marker, center right) debates his future with guests at his Missouri home (from left Harold Pierce, John Girot, Nanci Zoppi, Oceana Ortiz, Jennifer LeBlanc and Elizabeth Benedict) in the Aurora Theatre’s production of Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson. Below: Shirley (Oceana Ortiz, left) dramatically enacts meeting her famous future self in front of gathered family and friends (from left, Zoppi, Josh Schell, Girot and Marker). Photos by David Allen

It’s easy to imagine how, in 1978, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July was remarkable for several reasons. It featured a loving gay couple at the center of its family-friend-reunion plot and didn’t make a big deal about it. That’s not what the play is about, but the couple and their relationship are as important as any other on stage. Also, the play wrestles with the repercussions of the 1960s anti-war movements and how all that passionate activism evolved, and in many cases, dissipated into the ’70s.

Some have compared Wilson to Chekhov, and it’s easy to see why – a large group of people at a country house (in this case, it’s a 19-room house in Lebanon, Missouri) musing on how they find themselves older and atop a heap of broken dreams. But the comparison really ends there. Wilson’s characters are very much the product of their time, which leaves Fifth of July feeling rather dated and, in the current Aurora Theatre Company production, rather dull.

It’s unfair to compare the play (which was produced on Broadway in 1980) with The Big Chill, which came out in 1983, but while watching the Aurora production, I couldn’t help thinking about how similar they are and how much more fun the movie is. But Wilson was first, so he should get credit, even if Fifth of July creaks more often than it should (a paternity subplot is downright deadly).

The central issue with director Tom Ross’ production is that it feels entirely surface. There are good actors in the cast working hard to break through the veneer of people playing ’70s dress-up, but that shiny surface never cracks. So if there are depths to this play, they are not visible here. And what is visible is only fitfully interesting.

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Craig Marker is Ken Talley, a Vietnam vet who lost both of his legs in battle. Ken and his lover, Jed (an understated Josh Schell) are at the Talley family home for the summer, though Ken is there most of the time, while Jed lives in St. Louis. They are joined by assorted family and friends for the Fourth of July weekend. Ken’s sister, June (Jennifer LeBlanc), and her daughter, Shirley (Oceana Ortiz), are also there, as is their Aunt Sally (Elizabeth Benedict), whose senior years are threatening to take her to California and the kind of life she’s not much interested in.

Also in the house are old friends of Ken and June’s from their wild, cocaine- and protest-filled UC Berkeley days, Gwen Nanci Zoppi) and her husband, John (John Girot), and a strange hippie-ish musician named Wes (Harold Pierce) who is going to help Gwen become a country-western star. It’s an eclectic lot, and Wilson doesn’t really give them much to do. Ken’s struggle to move on with his life and adapt to a different body and world is the most compelling component of the story, and Marker makes Ken likable even if he never quite discovers the darker shades under Ken’s attempts at good humor. The scene stealer here is Benedict as Aunt Sally, who, in the second act, comes as close as this production gets to being lively.

LeBlanc, a superb actor, does what she can with a woefully underwritten role, and Ortiz has to contend with some of the least believable dialogue ever written for a teen character. Many of the actors have a good moment or two but seem adrift and unable to really make a strong connection with the play or the audience.

Set designer Richard Olmstead gets points for building an enormous house in the tiny Aurora space and then takes us from inside the house in Act 1 to outside in Act 2 – no small feat in such a limited space.

But then again, maybe the size of this show is part of the problem. The Aurora is an up-close-and-personal space, and it’s entirely possible that Fifth of July, heralded by many as an American classic, works best from a distance and suffers in close-up.

Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July continues through May 17 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Aurora finds rapture in Boise

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Pauline (Gwen Loeb, center) resolves a conflict between Hobby Lobby employees Leroy (Patrick Russell, left) and Will (Robert Parsons) in Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise by Samuel D. Hunter. Below: Alex (Daniel Petzold) reads some of his work to Parsons’ Will. Photos by David Allen

For a second time this fall theater season, a play is dealing with the Rapture, that moment when believers will ascend and everyone else…doesn’t. First it was the young gay actor in the San Jose Repertory Theatre production of Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall (read my review here). He worried that as a believer, he would spend eternity without the comfort of his boyfriend, a non-believer, and the boyfriend kind of rolled his eyes and dismissed the whole Rapture thing as nonsense.

Now we have Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company in which a staunch believer has his faith shaken by a terrible event at his northern Idaho church enclave (cult?) and attempts to make a fresh start in the bustling metropolis of Boise.

Like the plays of Annie Baker, Hunter’s drama unfolds against he bleak backdrops of modern life. For Baker it’s places like a rec room or a yard behind a cafe next to a Dumpster. In Hunter’s Boise it’s the break room of big-box hobby supply store and a parking lot. These aren’t places we usually see on stage, and Hunter’s characters aren’t those we’re don’t usually get to know in a theater. That’s what makes Boise such an interesting play, and director Tom Ross’ production heightens that interest with richly detailed, heartfelt performances from each of his five actors.

Want to know what it’s like to be a success in the big-box world? Look no further than Gwen Loeb’s stunning turn as Pauline, the manager of the Hobby Lobby and the person who turned it from a chaotic mess into a profit maker. The folks at corporate are mightily pleased. But Pauline’s recipe for success is unusual, a mix of foul language, quick temper and genuine motherly concern.

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Among her staff are a painfully shy girl with a troubled home life and precious few retail skills (Megan Trout as Anna) and a hothead who expresses his disdain for his job through T-shirt art (Patrick Russell as Leroy). Then there’s the new guy, Will (Robert Parsons) who just moved to town. We know he’s escaping a tragic scandal at his church, but he’d rather nobody knows about that — or that he’s living in his car. He’s also there, we quickly learn, to reconnect with his son, Alex (Daniel Petzold), a high-schooler who also works at the store. Will gave up the baby for adoption and has had no contact since. As part of his fresh start in Boise, he wants to be the father he never was. But Alex, who demonstrates a rather tenuous hold on his young life, is not going to embrace this sudden father with anything but belligerence, hostility and only mild curiosity. The power struggle between these two, with Alex taking the reigns much of the time, is so painfully intimate it’s almost hard to watch at times.

Though the scenes between Parsons and Petzold crackle with resentment, desperation and the soul-deep need to connect, the scenes that really come to life are between Parsons and Trout. Unlikely friends, Will and Anna both have reasons for sneaking back into the store late at night. Trout’s Anna would rather read a book than do anything else, so when she makes an effort to talk to Will, it seems as if everything she says pains her. If she’s not apologizing, she’s berating herself for being stupid. Anna a fascinating character and Trout offers a beguiling performance.

There’s a lot of interest among the characters about what Will believes. Does he really believe in the Rapture? After all he’s been through, does he still believe in God? Those are big questions, and Hunter’s play isn’t afraid to wrestle with them. His ending goes for thought provoking but ends up being more frustrating, which is only disappointing because for two hours, the play gives such vital voice to people whose lives don’t seem to amount to much, but who are, in reality, battling demons and desperately searching for the meaning of their lives.

Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise continues through Dec. 8 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-482 or visit

Stravinsky and the sadness of a puppet Soldier

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The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s The Soldier’s Tale includes (from left) Joan Mankin as the devil, L. Peter Callender as the storyteller and Muriel Maffre as Joseph, the soldier. Below: Backed by members of the classical chamber group Earplay, Maffre guides Joseph home from the battlefield. Photos by David Allen

As the weary soldier trudges down the road home, you see the weight of his exhaustion as well as his excitement to see his mother and fiancée in his every step. The remarkable thing is that this soldier – who goes by the name of Joseph – is a Bunraku-style puppet. All that extraordinary expression is coming from his puppeteer, Muriel Maffre, the San Francisco Ballet star who retired in 2007.

Along with Aurora Theatre Company artistic director Tom Ross, Maffre is the co-director of The Soldier’s Tale, a theatrical fusion of music, dance, puppetry and storytelling that carries a melancholy charm for its brief 75 minutes. Much of that charm comes from Maffre, who also dances the role of the King’s daughter, who falls under Joseph’s spell.

It’s easy to succumb to this Tale. L. Peter Callender is the storyteller and also gives Joseph his voice from time to time. He guides the story from Joseph’s homecoming march to his fateful meeting with an old man on the road. The two agree to exchange knowledge – Joseph will trade his violin for the old man’s magical book about future fortunes, and they will spend three days teaching each other what they know.

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That old man, played with wicked glee by Joan Mankin, is actually the devil, and those three days turn out to be three years in devil time. So when Joseph finally gets home to his village, he is shunned because everyone thinks he’s a ghost, and he finds out his fiancée is now married with children. What’s a bedeviled soldier to do? If you’re Joseph, you simply carry on. Unfortunately for him, though, the devil stays on his tail.

Joseph tries to outsmart the demon, and does manage some happy years, but apparently you can’t outrun the devil. At least that’s how it goes in the story by C.F. Ramuz, who collaborated with composer Igor Stravinsky on The Soldier’s Tale in 1918. This is a grim story made all the more unsettling because Joseph is a seemingly good guy who has followed the rules. Why the devil is determined to destroy him remains a mystery.

This beguiling theatrical mélange is at its most extraordinary when Stravinsky’s score, played by four members of classical chamber group Earplay and arranged by Jonathan Khuner, is at its most eclectic. There’s jazz and rag and dissonance and captivating beauty. Donald Pippin’s translation of the book has its pleasures, but I found the rhyming dialogue to be childish in a way the music is not. There’s a deeply serious tone to this tale, and the cute and clever rhyming is occasionally at odds with that tone.

In the Aurora’s intimate space, experiencing music and dance is especially rewarding – you’re right in the middle of it all, right there with poor old Joseph, a soldier in an epic battle for his soul.


The Soldier’s Tale continues through Dec. 18 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Aurora tips Albee’s Balance delicately

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Kimberly King (right) gives a stellar performance as Agnes in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Agnes’ world is upended by the arrival of best friends Edna (Anne Darragh, rear left) and Harry (Charles Dean) who are fleeing a nameless terror. Below: Ken Grantham (in bathrobe) is Tobias, patriarch of a challenging clan, which now includes Harry (Dean, right) and (rear, from left) Agnes (King), Julia (Carrie Paff), Claire (Jamie Jones) and Edna (Darragh). Photos by David Allen

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance only looks like a suburban comedy. It’s really an existential nightmare slightly more gussied up than your average slasher movie. Oh, blood flows in this eviscerating drama, but it’s of a more metaphorical variety than you’ll find in the Saw franchise. Between the ravages of time and the mighty pen of Albee, the family on stage has absolutely no chance at all.

And their demise is so very delicious. (Also delicious: Albee himself was in the audience for Thursday’s opening-night performance.)

A Delicate Balance opens Aurora’s 20th season, and as directed by Artistic Director Tom Ross, it’s a perfect example of why the Aurora is such a glorious part of the Bay Area theater scene. An intimate theater and a thrust stage so deep it’s practically in the round make the Aurora a crucible in which outstanding writing and superb performances combine and, with luck and a good director, ignite. To watch an actor lose herself or himself in an exquisitely crafted part is one of the greatest pleasures in the theater, and there’s no better vantage point for this than the Aurora.

Ross’ Balance is one of those wonderful Aurora experiences – a cracking good play with a strong director at the helm and intricate performances that blur the line between art and reality.

Chief among this production’s pleasures is a central performance by Kimberly King as Agnes. Hers is a performance so compelling it’s sometimes to hard to watch anybody else. From the play’s opening moments, as Agnes muses on the very real possibility that she’ll lose her mind, it’s clear that King will be the vital center of this story. Agnes is a fascinating character – strong, controlling, incredibly smart and hard to the point of impenetrability. But through Albee’s incisive writing and King’s dynamic performance, we also see the person Agnes once was – warm, funny, compassionate, nurturing – before life, and the choices she made to deal with that life, built up her defenses and made her more sour than sweet.

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Because the audience is on three sides of the stage, it’s impossible for actors to escape the careful inspection of audience members at all times. Ross, who has been with the Aurora since 1992, is adept at directing the most minute details. This means that wherever you look at any time during the play, you’ll see something revealing, especially if, like me, you’re compelled to watch King’s Agnes for the play’s three acts and nearly three hours.

Whether she’s lovingly manipulating her somewhat baffled husband, Tobias (Ken Grantham, fighting her alcoholic younger sister, Claire (Jamie Jones or dealing with the hysteria of her oft-divorced daughter, Julia (Carrie Paff), Agnes is a force of nature (“There’s no saner woman on Earth,” we’re told). She’s well spoken (indeed, she apologizes at one point for being articulate), and her words have powerful impact. She’s the fulcrum attempting to maintain the delicate balance of the title.

She rules her suburban roost (the gorgeous living room set is by Richard Olmstead and the lighting by Kurt Landisman) like a drill sergeant crossed with dowager empress with a hint of Margaret Thatcher. And yet she’s entirely likeable, even empathetic, and that’s largely due to the intricacies of King’s masterful performance.

Agnes gets even more interesting when her world starts to rock. Errant daughter Julia returns home after her fourth failed marriage on the same day that best friends Harry and Edna (Charles Dean and Anne Darragh) arrive with news that they have fled their home due to some unnamed terror. The monster of mortality is storming the neighborhood, like Godzilla touring Japan, and Agnes is just the warrior to ready her troops. As she and Tobias discuss early in the play, from their plateau of soul-numbing suburban domesticity, “we do what we can,” so of course they take in their creepily spooked friends and mentally unbalanced daughter. They don’t want to but they do.

There are so many good laughs in this production that it can feel like a rollicking comedy, but for every great laugh line, or accordion solo, there’s an equally searing observation about marriage, friendship, family and the ruinous nature of time. As when Claire, a self-described drunk rather than an alcoholic, asks for a refill on her cocktail: “Oh, come on. It’s only the first I’m not supposed to have.” The more you laugh, the closer you get to falling down the bottomless pit – “the dark sadness” as Albee describes it – at the center of the play. And that’s a theater experience to savor.

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance continues an extended run through Oct. 23 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Of pleasures and Eccentricities

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Love hurts: Beth Wilmurt is Alma Winemiller and Thomas Gorrebeeck is John Buchanan in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Tennessee Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Below: Gorrebeeck’s John (far right) watches as Wilmurt’s Alma conducts a meeting with her fellow “misfits” (from left Leanne Borghesi, Beth Deitchman and Ryan Tasker). Photos by David Allen


Oh, Alma Winemiller. If you had been able to shuck off the burden of having an insane mother and a stern Episcopalian priest for a father, you might have become the woman you were meant to be: Lady Gaga.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but poor Alma is just a heap of talent and emotion and expression aching for release in Tennessee Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale, a play with a convoluted history in the Tennessee Williams canon. The Aurora Theatre Company production of the play, directed with finesse and warmth by Artistic Director Tom Ross, makes a case for the play being if not alongside siblings like A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, then at least in an honorable spot somewhere just below.

Eccentricities started out as a short story called “Yellow Bird,” which evolved into the play Summer and Smoke. That play’s Broadway premiere in 1948 failed to live up to expectations set by Streetcar, though a 1952 off-Broadway revival starring Geraldine Page salvaged the play’s reputation somewhat (Page reprised the role of Alma in the 1961 movie).

Soon after writing Summer and Smoke, Williams had already created an alternate version of it, which he called Eccentricities of a Nightingale. He offered that one to the Broadway producers of Summer and Smoke, but they stuck with original play. Williams is said to have liked Eccentricities better: “It is less conventional and melodramatic.” Even so, the alternate version didn’t have its Broadway premiere until 1976.

The Aurora, with its wonderfully intimate playing space, is a great way to experience Williams. Being able to see the slightest shift in an actor’s face, or to notice very specific physical movement, however small, makes it all very real and emotional. One of the chief pleasures of this Nightingale is experiencing – really experiencing – the beautiful performances by Ross’ cast.

It’s clear that Williams had a connection to and deep compassion for the character of Alma, a passionate, yearning woman forced by gender and convention into straitjacketed small-town life. She refuses, however, to surrender her individuality. That’s why she’s politely referred to as an eccentric. When she sings, she’s too emotionally connected. She’s too histrionic, too affected. But she’s unlike anyone else in town, and that’s a small triumph.

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Beth Wilmurt has a little bit of Geraldine Page in her Alma, and that can only be a good thing. Wilmurt is an immediately likable and accessible actor. We feel for Alma right away when we meet her at a Fourth of July picnic. She’s a spinster in the making (if not a spinster in the town’s eyes already), someone to feel sorry for but not think about too often. Alma knows all that but embraces her eccentricity anyway – even when it provokes the disapproval of her father (a stern Charles Dean).

Wilmurt has the tremendous advantage of being funny and heartbreaking at the same time. We can see in her Alma’s instability, which she may have inherited from her “disturbed” mother (Amy Crumpacker), who ambles about talking about her dead sister, Albertine, and the Musée Mécanique. We also see her father’s resilience and, underneath it all, the soul of an artist who wants to taste the world.

With Thomas Gorrebeeck as young Dr. John Buchanan, it’s easy to see why Alma has been in love with the boy next door since childhood. He broods without seeming like a self-indulgent narcissist, and though deemed a success in the world – summa cum laude from Johns Hopkins – he’s got parental damage as well. He’s a mama’s boy in the extreme. His doting mother – played with crisp, almost creepy authority by Marcia Pizzo – wouldn’t know an appropriate boundary if it was an electrified fence.

John still has a spark of individuality, though, and that spark lights up around Alma. Even though Mother Buchanan does everything she can to squash John’s interest in the wholly inappropriate girl next door, he pays her some much needed attention.

There’s an extraordinary scene – so well directed and performed you don’t want it to end – that involves a panic attack, a late-night visit to the doctor’s office and a powerful emotional flare-up. Wilmurt and Gorrebeeck bare the souls of their characters to such a degree that the play peaks in the scene. The following scene, in which Williams the love-as-fire metaphor into the ground, is anti-climactic (although Wilmurt continues to fascinate), and the epilogue is just sad, as it probably has to be. For a woman like Alma in the early part of the 20th century, there weren’t a lot of good choices.

Simply and beautifully designed by Liliana Duque Piñeiro (sets), Jim Cave (lights) and Laura Hazlett (costumes), this Nightingale casts an emotional spell and makes you grateful that Williams kept coming back to Alma.



Tennessee Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale continues through continues through May 8 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$45. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Nostalgic for The Homecoming at a different home

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The cast of ACT’s The Homecoming includes (from left) Kenneth Welsh, Anthony Fusco, Jack Willis (seated), Adam O’Byrne, René Augesen and Andrew Polk. Below: The cast in the shadows of Daniel Ostling’s impressive set. Photos by Kevin Berne


The absolute power of live theater, when it’s done superbly well, is undeniable. The connection the playwright, the director, the actors and designers forge with the audience – and vice-versa – can be incredibly powerful.

That’s a wonderful thing and leave a lasting impression. Sometimes, perhaps, too lasting.

Last week I saw Carey Perloff’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming for American Conservatory Theater. It’s a bizarre, tormentingly fascinating play by a master playwright at the height of his game-playing dramatic powers. And though the production is fine, all I could think about was the Aurora Theatre Company production staged by Tom Ross at the Berkeley City Club in April of 2000.

I’ve seen a lot of plays in the nearly 11 years between that production and this one, and yet while sitting in the giant ACT space, I was longing for the intimacy (where horror is even more horrific when you feel like it’s unfolding in your lap and there’s no escape). I could even remember line readings delivered by Julian Lopez-Morillas as Max, the monstrous father figure, now played by ACT company member Jack Willis, and by James Carpenter and Rebecca Dines, who play Max’s returning son, Teddy, and his wife, Ruth. René Augesen, celebrating her 10th anniversary as an ACT company member, did the most of any cast member in the current production to make me forget the performances of more than a decade ago. But Anthony Fusco, who plays her husband, might as well have phoned in his performance for all the impression he made (he was so much more vivid in the recent Clybourne Park).

It’s absolutely not fair to judge one production by another, but when a certain production burns itself into your brain, there’s no escaping it. When I left the Berkeley City Club that night, having just experienced The Homecoming for the first time, I was thrilled and unsettled, which is, I think, a perfectly fine way to feel after a Pinter play. All the performances in Ross’ production had been pitch perfect, which made the production easy to admire, but the actors’ skills only augmented the work of Pinter and his genius for pleasant unpleasantness. With his sheen of British propriety and his structure of well-chose words (and, of course, his silences), Pinter unleashes monsters who look and sound remarkably human.

The ACT production has the size of the theater working against it automatically. It’s a huge stage, a giant house and an intimate six-person play. Set designer Daniel Ostling handles this beautifully by building one of the most imposing living rooms ever seen on a stage. With great heaving gray walls leaning heavily into the performance space, you feel the weight of this house. And the giant staircase (giant – think the BART station at 16th Street) is agonizingly gorgeous. So too is the lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. I don’t remember so much turning on and off of lights in the previous production, but in this space, you feel the presence and the absence of light.

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The physical production does just about everything it can to make the space feel intimate, or, if not exactly intimate, then imposing in an intimate sort of way. In fact, the set and lights do more work than some of the actors.

Perloff creates some compelling tableaux, especially with Nichols’ lighting, but that becomes a problem. This is not a still life. It’s a play. Actors, when they aren’t striking a pose, are moved awkwardly around the stage, and that diminishes the sense of unease and discomfort that should build steadily from the first minutes of the show. I wanted to like Willis as Max – he looks perfect in the part – but his uneven British accent kept throwing me off until I was defeated.

This production does cause gasps, but I’d credit Augesen’s mastery of Ruth for that. When her character really gets to know her in-laws – like when Max meets her and calls her a “stinking pox-ridden slut” – mouths should drop and brows should furrow. But Augesen conveys intelligence amid the fear, some control, even pleasure, in the flood of testosterone overwhelming the stage. There’s a kind of heat coming off of her, and it isn’t just sexual.

I found more humor than horror bubbling through the ACT production, which is certainly enjoyable. But every production of The Homecoming I see from here on out, is going to have be better than my first time out. Apparently that’s going to take some doing.



Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming continues through March 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Oh, Brothers — an ode to Julia Brothers

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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





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 for information. All performances are at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.


In a downsizing world, Aurora Theatre Co. expands!

At this bleak moment in history, when it seems the roof is crashing down on arts organizations all around us, it’s refreshing to hear about on theater company literally knocking down a wall and expanding.

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, a 17-year-old troupe known for its intimate, highly literate productions, has announced plans to expand its downtown theater space.

On Jan. 12, the Aurora will officially break through the wall connecting its current space to an adjacent space, which will house a new rehearsal space, readings, workshops of new productions, offices for artistic staff and increased set-building space.

News of the expansion comes halfway through the Aurora’s $2.1 million capital campaign. The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust of New York City announced its support of the campaign with a $200,000 grant, which will help underwrite the development of new work as well as he adaptation of large-scale classics, endeavors which the expanded space will also help to make possible.

The Aurora began life at the 67-seat drawing room in the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club. In 2001, the Aurora moved to its 150-seat theater in downtown Berkeley on the same block as Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s two stages and Jazzschool.

“It’s remarkable to me that in its 17 years, Aurora Theatre Company has grown from a single theater production produced in a room where women once played cards into a thriving Bay Area institution that continues to grow, both artistically and once again physically,” said Tom Ross, the Aurora’s artistic director, in a statement. “This is the next logical step in our development. The impact of the new space will be strongly felt by the artists who work here as well as our audience.”

The project, which was ended up being the last project for the late acclaimed theater designer Gene Angell (and his partner Brian Rawlinson), is set for completion in the summer of 2009. The expanded space will be named The Nell and Jules Dashow Wing in honor of donors Deborah and Leo Ruth, who have chosen to name the wing after Deborah’s parents.

Now at the Aurora is The Coverlettes Cover Christmas, an original musical revue about a fictitious ’60s girl band celebrating the season. Darby Gould (of Jefferson Starship), Katie Guthorn (A Karen Carpenter Christmas) and “Star Search” winner Carol Bozzio Littleton, star. The show continues through Dec. 23.


Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.