There’s a line from the Jean Renoir 1939 film classic The Rules of the Game that is often worth quoting: “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”
That piece of wisdom sprang to mind after my viewing of Jonathan Spector’s play Eureka Day, onstage in an Asolo Rep production in the Cook Theatre. Renoir used the line in a very different context, but it seems applicable to the situations in this comedy-drama, set in a progressive private school in (where else?) Berkeley, California, where there’s a raging battle about childhood vaccinations after an outbreak of mumps takes place.
Spector wrote the play well before the Covid-19 pandemic that shook our world and raised so many discussions pro- and anti-vaccine, but naturally the setup now feels “ripped from the headlines.” At first, placing those arguments in the mouths of the oh-so “woke” members of the school board may seem too easy—picking low-hanging fruit, as it were. The people we meet in Eureka Day are so obviously all trying too hard to do the right thing, it’s bound to go wrong.
Even before the show opens, we are well introduced to the atmosphere: the bright, cheerful colors of Riw Rakkulchon’s set design, the posters on the school walls aimed at inclusion, the background songs championing friendship and diversity. The characters are bending over backwards to be sensitive and aware, from the mealy-mouthed director Don (Paul Slade Smith, perfect in the role), who reads Rumi before and after each board meeting, to the white and privileged Suzanne (Anne Bowles), perhaps over-warmly welcoming new board member, Black lesbian Carina (Jasmine Bracey) to the tech multimillionaire stay-at-home dad Eli (Chris Amos) to the quieter, nervous Meiko (Celia Mei Rubin).
Despite their efforts, none of them is prepared for what happens when a student at the school gets the mumps, and they begin to find out more about everyone’s vaccine stance, as well as about each other and themselves. Act I culminates in a hysterical scene that’s all too real, as an attempt at a Zoom-like meeting to allow everyone to weigh in online escalates from cordial to distracted to downright hostile. Reading everyone’s online comments in real time (through Paul Deziel’s projection design) makes for an all-too familiar experience these days.
Act II turns more serious, as the mumps situation worsens and we discover some of those reasons I mentioned up top: personal wounds and beliefs that can either rip a community apart or, in the best scenario, help to make those in it recognize each other’s humanity.
Spector’s script, under the direction of Bianca Laverne Jones, can sometimes be a little pat or overreaching, but in general it rings true, with the cast, especially Bowles and Bracey, adept at making their characters more than the stereotypes we start out with. As fractious as any recent Sarasota County school board meeting, but much more fun and illuminating, Eureka Day is timely and trenchant. It continues through June 4; for tickets, call (941) 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.