Our Practical Heaven
Just before "Our Practical Heaven" begins, a standard announcement reminds the audience to turn off their cell phones, then encourages them to enter a fundraising raffle for a chance to win an iPad. Then we segue straight into a play about the inadequacies of modern communication, complete with a few "These dang kids and their smart phones" lines. Accidental irony or calculated commentary? Tough call, but you can't help but wish the actual play provided as much to ponder.
Berkeley playwright Anthony Clarvoe's new show, directed by Allen McKelvey and premiering at the Aurora Theatre, centers on three generations of women united by a love of bird watching and divided by pretty much everything else.
Vera (Joy Carlin) is an aged but spunky radical, Sasha (Anne Darragh, in the show's standout performance) is her worrywart, cancer survivor daughter, and Willa (Julia Brothers) is Vera's surrogate daughter, a former maid turned union-busting CEO. The three senior most actors acquit themselves well enough, although only Darragh's character enjoys both complete dimension and complete consistency.
Also in tow are Sasha's own daughters, oddball Leez (Adrienne Walters) and do-gooder Suze (Blythe Foster), and Willa's sullen, confrontational daughter Magz (Lauren Spencer), and here we find the play's most glaring defect. Did Clarvoe set out to write a trio of 20-somethings who are simply unbearable, or did he just go awry while trying to channel real generational outrage? It's hard to say, but either way there's no question which side of this generation gap you want to avoid.
The kids default to antagonism, send obnoxious, catty texts to one another (displayed for the audience on a screen hanging over the performance space, which also provides some lovely impressionistic landscapes and a few other handy visual aids), and mock their grandmother's dementia, among other gems.
The actors aren't really to blame; Clarvoe's script never lets them grow. At the play's start we sense that these families love each other but don't understand one another and so grow resentful. At play's end, not much has changed. So, basically, they're family.
"Our Practical Heaven" is also a treatise on the ubiquity of 21st century communication. In an early scene, Darragh confronts a sealed envelope containing news about her cancer diagnosis, saying she couldn't bring herself to open it, or open the accompanying email, or listen to the voice message.
"They've got me surrounded," she quips. Why this hospital has so many redundant messages flying around isn't clear, but we still get the point -- advances in communications technology still can't make people really communicate.
Good observation, but hopefully you find it very engaging, because the play repeats (rather than develops) it for two hours. Brothers even spells it out verbatim in one of her final lines of dialogue, maybe for the benefit of anyone who came in really, really, really late.
The really frustrating thing is that Clarvoe's script is quite witty; the dialogue pops with wry one-liners and truly funny self-deprecation. The characters, even the annoying ones, are genuine and plausible, and each actor creates a tangible rapport with the others. But we're never given enough incentive to really care.
The second Act comes off much stronger than the first, providing some conflicts worth committing to and introducing some more engaging keystone ideas. But the problem is, well, that's the second Act.
"Our Practical Heaven" is a bit like a family black sheep itself: By the time it sorts out what's important it's already let a lot of opportunities go by.
"Our Practical Heaven" runs through March 3 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. For info or tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit auroratheatre.org