AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Tom Ross
Presented by Aurora Theatre Company Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison St., Berkeley, CA / (510) 843-4822

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Teacher Sydney Garrison's (Julia Brothers) calm, yet in control manner with her class of first graders belies the turmoil of the rest of her life, as we soon discover in "The First Grade." Aurora Theatre Company is giving Joel Drake Johnson's intermissionless play its world premiere in a well-acted production directed by artistic director Tom Ross. Even though Sydney is hurting physically from arthritis and emotionally from upheavals in her family, she's still a caring person. That becomes evident when she meets her physical therapist, Mora (Tina Sanchez), and soon learns that Mora's family life is far from happy, too. She reaches out to Mora, but Mora initially doesn't want to trouble her client.

Sydney's family problems start with her ex-husband, Nat (Warren David Keith), an alcoholic who still lives in their home and brings his girlfriend (we don't meet her) there while waiting for the house to sell. Their adult daughter, Angie (Rebecca Schweitzer), and her pre-school son have moved in with them because she's estranged from her husband.

There's bickering aplenty between Sydney and Nat and between Sydney and Angie, but outside forces intervene. Late one night, actually early one morning, Mora arrives at their door, saying she's fleeing from her abusive husband. Worse, her husband, Jamie (Adrian Anchondo), shows up with his father, Rick (Paul Santiago), to confront Mora in their front yard, with much of the dialogue in Spanish. After some shocking revelations, there's a measure of hope for Sydney and Nat.

Johnson develops the characters well as he builds the tension, but he knows when to provide some needed release through humor. Ross has a good feel for the characters and emotional arc, although the scene with Mora's husband and father is too loud for Aurora's intimate space.

Brothers is superb as Sydney, whose arthritis, an autoimmune disease, she says, might be an outgrowth of her emotional problems or at least symbolic of them. Her stiff movements reflect the pain of Sydney's arthritic joints. Keith and Schweitzer as her ex and daughter are well-paired with her, as is Sanchez as Mora, a character who can't be completely trusted.

Nina Ball's set captures the feeling of a classroom, then evolves into a physical therapy studio and the Garrison home. Ted Crimy's sound design includes children responding to their teacher. Also aiding the production are Jarrod Fischer's lighting and Cassandra Carpenter's costumes.

This thought-provoking play deserves additional productions.

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