Theater Review: ‘The First Grade’ a most con·ge·nial play

Sydney (l, Julia Brothers) argues with ex-husband Nat (r, Warren David Keith) while their daughter Angie (c, Rebecca Schweitzer) watches in The First Grade. Photo by David Allen
In Review

The First Grade

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars - 'Sweet Stuff'
Aurora Theatre Company (Berkeley)
Directed by Tom Ross
Starring Julia Brothers, Tina Sanchez, Rebecca Schweitzer, Warren David Keith, Adrian Anchondo, Paul Santiago
by Joel Drake Johnson (2009 GAP winner)
www.auroratheatre.org
Review by

Sydney (l, Julia Brothers) argues with ex-husband Nat (r, Warren David Keith) while their daughter Angie (c, Rebecca Schweitzer) watches in The First Grade. Photo by David Allen
Sydney (l, Julia Brothers) argues with ex-husband Nat (r, Warren David Keith) while their daughter Angie (c, Rebecca Schweitzer) watches in The First Grade. Photo by David Allen

The opening scene of Aurora Theatre’s The First Grade indeed sends us back to the classroom, with Sydney (Julia Brothers) introducing the word of the day, “congenial.” Repeat after me, she says with exuberence: con-ge-nial. It’s one of several wonderful moments in the world premiere of Joel Drake Johnson’s The First Grade—a 2009 Global Age Project winner.

But all is not well in the life of a grade school teacher. In fact, another word comes to mind: dys-func-tion-al.

As in a family that includes live-in alcoholic ex-husband Nat (Warren David Keith), neglected and distraught daughter Angie (Rebecca Schweitzer). Sydney begrudgingly seeks answers to aging with her therapist (Tina Sanchez).

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea.

Everyone has an idiosyncrasy. Sydney hides cookies from her family, telling them to turn around, before sneaking to an upper cupboard to fetch one. Her ex is pre-occupied with his BlackBerry and Johnny Walker, and might be gay. The sullen daughter knits, depressed. Later she breaks into the cookie stash; a comical moment turns into a nervous break down.

Mora (c, Tina Sanchez) tells her story to Sydney (l, Julia Brothers) and Nat (r, Warren David Keith) in The First Grade. Photo by David Allen

Zen out, for Christ’s sake!

There is a serious edge here, that takes the play to an interesting place. It’s not pure slapstick, though there are many zingers, especially early.

Dealing with middle age and the quest for love and attention come to the fore. Pain is deep. The thin veneer of witty repertoire, between Sydney and her boozing ex, for example, ultimately reveals sadness and insecurity.

Selfish is the new black.

Julia Brothers absolutely shines. I especially enjoyed her moments in the classroom, talking to us, the audience, as first graders. Her cynicism towards aging as she works through a hand stretching exercise with her therapist is a hoot. She delivers the dramatic goods as well. It seems everyone around her is crazy. And her responses—facial, body language and temperament—are priceless.

Kudos to the set designer. The stage effortlessly transitions from classroom, interior and exterior of a home, hospital, therapist’s room. Rotating panels are used effectively. At 90 minutes with no intermission, the show feels tight and efficient.

The First Grade doesn’t resolve neatly, and neither should it. Instead, Sydney ends up right where she started, addressing  her class of first graders with a smile and jar of cookies. It’s the one place she seems perfectly at peace with herself.

The First Grade
Aurora Theatre Company
3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Tom Ross
Starring Julia Brothers*, Tina Sanchez*, Rebecca Schweitzer, Warren David Keith*, Adrian Anchondo, Paul Santiago*
www.auroratheatre.org
90 minutes, no intermission
Through February 28
* Member of Actors’ Equity Association

Noteworthy
  • Both my parents were school teachers; my Mom a grade school teacher and my Father a science teacher (and then a high school principal). I remember my Mom telling story after story when she would get home. Ritalin was usually a big factor. I think she’d get a big kick out of this show.
  • Why is Puff the Magic Dragon used in the play, and what is its meaning?
  • Flip your program: On the reverse side is information about ‘The Global Age Project’ – new plays that explore life in the 21 century…and beyond. 2010 winners of the 4 plays (out of 200 submissions), Miss Lilly Gets Boned, The Serving Class, A Guide for the Perplexed, Collapse will read their scripts and engage in discussion. As Tom Ross says, “These are plays-in-process, meaning that the playwrights are still working on their scripts and will be using…reading(s) and response(s) as guideposts.”
  • It took about three times longer to get home from Berkeley; a blown radiator will do that to you; so we made stops every 10 min, sat, often in darkness, sometimes at the side of the road, once outside a Walmart after picking up some coolant. Loni, please get yourself a new car!
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