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‘Eureka Day’ cleverly balances comedy, tragedy and political correctness

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From left, Teddy Spencer, Lisa Anne Porter, Elizabeth Carter, Rolf Saxon and Charisse Loriaux appear in Jonathan Spector’s “Eureka Day,” an Aurora Theatre Company premiere. (Courtesy David Allen)

There’s a scene toward the end of the first act in local playwright Jonathan Spector’s world premiere “Eureka Day” at the Aurora Theatre Company, that’s so funny — the audience will likely be laughing so loudly — that you won’t hear a word of the dialogue.

But Spector’s writing is so beautifully calibrated, so carefully crafted, that somehow that’s OK.

The scene in question is a “Facebook Live” streaming video in which the five-member executive committee of a private, progressive Berkeley elementary school, Eureka Day, is holding a community discussion about an outbreak of mumps that apparently was initiated by an unvaccinated student.

Concerned parents chime in (their written online comments projected on the walls) and — vaccination being, famously, a divisive issue that cuts across political lines — what was meant to be a civilized discussion in Eureka Day’s proud tradition of political correctness and consensus (the committee politely informs newcomer Carina that “We only use non-gender-specific pronouns”) soon devolves into an unseemly free-for-all.

There’s lots at stake, down to the very future existence of the school, and Spector has just the right light touch on all the surrounding issues, which are grave indeed.

In fact, amid the gentle mockery, there’s a moral question at the heart of the play to which, wisely, Spector offers no definitive answers.

And equally wise director Josh Costello strikes a perfect balance between comedy and gravity — even tragedy — as does his well-chosen ensemble.

As committee head Don, bearded Rolf Saxon in silly-looking shorts (perfect costuming by Maggie Whitaker) exudes a hilariously ineffectual aura of conciliation.

He’s a perfect foil for the other, more contentious committee members: Lisa Anne Porter’s domineering, impassioned Suzanne; Teddy Spencer’s impulsive and relentlessly agreeable Eli; Charisse Loriaux’s troubled single mother Meiko; and smiling but clearly anxious Carina, the only non-white member of the committee (the wonderful Elizabeth Carter), whom everyone is overly eager to welcome.

By the end of two tight acts, they’ve all evolved into full, deeply individual characters.

The varying views on vaccinating children is, it turns out, a wonderful premise for this “comedy of liberal manners,” as it’s billed: It allows Spector to poke gentle fun at these familiar, well-meaning Berkeley types (and it’s a great choice for Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre), to present some actual scientific information on both sides of the vaccination divide and to explore, through the characters’ deepest feelings, the question of social vs. personal responsibility.

REVIEW
Eureka Day
Presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, closes May 13
Tickets: $33 to $65
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org

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