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A funny thing happened on the way to the safe space

Laughter is contagious in the Asolo Rep’s upcoming production of “Eureka Day.” Here’s a diagnosis of where the humor comes from.

Paul Slade Smith and director Bianca LaVerne Jones in the rehearsal room for Eureka Day. (Courtesy photo: Sophia Marquart)
Paul Slade Smith and director Bianca LaVerne Jones in the rehearsal room for Eureka Day. (Courtesy photo: Sophia Marquart)
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To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? That is the question. Playwright Jonathan Spector explores it in his “Eureka Day.” His savvy satire is coming to the Asolo Repertory Theatre stage later this month. It’s incredibly timely.

But it wasn’t at the time Spector wrote it.

The action unfolds in Eureka Day School, a progressive (yet privileged) elementary school in Berkeley, California.

It’s normally a peaceful place. But that all changes when one student is diagnosed with a highly contagious disease. Parents and educators wrestle with vaccinating their children. But the virus is the mumps. And the year is 2017.

What led Spector to write this play?

The germ of the idea came from random talks Spector had with people in the San Francisco Bay region.

Friends or friends of friends. These were smart, well-educated individuals.

Playwright Jonathan Spector (Courtesy photo)
Playwright Jonathan Spector (Courtesy photo)

Spector assumed they shared his politics and worldview. Most did. But every now and then, a few of these smart people dropped a conversational bomb. A casual aside that they were skeptical of vaccines or didn’t vaccinate their kids.

Spector recalls his shock in a video interview with Bob Hupp, Syracuse Stage’s artistic director.

“And you sort of feel the floor dropping out from under you because it seems so bizarre that somebody you thought saw the world the way you did, in this one regard, seems to live in a different universe.”

That bizarre opinion sparked Spector’s curiosity and led to not-so-random interviews with people in the Bay area opposed to vaccines.

These conversations became the inspiration for “Eureka Day.”

His comedy revolves around a life-and-death discussion. But it begins with a trivial one. Five parents and educators meet at the school. They’re Eureka Day’s “executive committee,” and they all have to agree before any action takes place.

The committee’s arcane opening debate is worthy of medieval scholasticism.

In this case, the question isn’t how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. What’s up for grabs? A dropdown menu on the school’s website. Specifically, the descriptions of races and ethnic origins on the admission form.

Debate ensues on this topic with a flurry of "politically correct" terminology and no declarative sentences. But the discussion gets serious when it shifts to a letter from the Alameda County Health Department regarding one Eureka Day student diagnosed with the mumps.

“If your child has no documentation of immunity to mumps, he or she will be excluded from school until such time as it is determined by the county health officer that there is no longer a risk of exposure.”

It’s an order, not a request. But giving orders is not the Eureka Day style.

About half of the school’s parents and two of the parents in the circle are vaccine-hesitant. The talk in the circle gets heated.

When the discussion opens up to livestream comments from parents, it turns into a firestorm. About half the students’ parents haven’t vaccinated their kids and don’t plan to now.

People opposed to vaccines are an easy satiric target. But Spector’s play doesn’t simply scold them.

It fleshes them out as specific personalities without becoming a soapbox for their theories. The five characters on stage are highly individualized. Only two oppose vaccines. But they all have distinctive a voice and worldview.

Three on the committee agree with the vaccine mandate.

Don is the head of the school — a non-authoritarian authority figure. He’s white, in his mid-50s and a big fan of consensus.

“Come let us reason together” is his guiding star.

Open, honest dialogue defeats every problem! If we respect every voice and have a conversation, we’ll all reach the right conclusion together. Don trusts the dialogue process. This time, it doesn’t work. He’s a people-pleaser. But the people aren’t pleased.

Carina is Black and in her early forties. She’s a fan of science, logic and rationality. She actually tries to reason together with the others. She’s often shouted down.

Eli has a Jewish background. He’s not yet 40 but already a highly successful Silicon Valley savant. (He either works for Google or Facebook. Nobody’s quite sure.) Eli's mind often wanders to the latest text on his iPhone. He’s got a lot on his mind; his child is the one who got the mumps.

But there are also two opposed to vaccines in the group.

Meiko’s in her mid-30s. She’s biracial, with one white parent and another of Japanese ancestry. She’s a true believer in alternative medicine and deeply suspicious of Western medicine. She knits throughout the meeting like Madam Defarge.

Suzanne is also white and about Don’s age. She’s overtly nice but bossy in a sweet, passive-aggressive kind of way. She’s a hard-working parent volunteer and righteously entitled. Her suggestions feel more like orders. It’s a rigid attitude.

But there’s tragedy behind it.

Director Bianca LaVerne Jones (Courtesy photo)
Director Bianca LaVerne Jones (Courtesy photo)

Director Bianca LaVerne Jones went the extra mile to stay true to Spector’s well-drawn characters and their origins. She worked closely with a cultural competency specialist to get the details of each individual’s body language, dialect and attitude right.

Jones adds that the committee’s group dynamic is equally true to life.

“In a typical PTA meeting, there’s a dichotomy between the rocket scientists and the rocking chair people,” she says. “The rocket scientist has all the answers and always speaks up. The rocking chair person holds back — unless an issue really pushes their buttons and they explode. That’s just what you see with Meiko.”

Having read Spector’s hilarious script, here’s what I see.

The clash between philosophy and reality fuels the humor in the play. Berkeley’s progressive culture celebrates dialogue, agreement and respecting other people’s viewpoints. But when progressives have a dialogue and disagree, they don’t know how to handle it.

The committee’s discussion begins with upbeat affirmations. It ends with name-calling and dirty laundry. The infighting reminds me of “The God of Carnage.” It’s hilarious.

But is it hyperbole? The director doesn’t think so.

“Some people agree with Dr. Fauci. Some people don’t,” Jones says. “That’s the discussion we’re having today. If we take it personally, it goes off the rails. And you see that happening in ‘Eureka Day.’ This play is so reflective of what people think and feel about vaccinating or wearing masks. People get into all-out fights and brawls about these issues. It’s not hyperbole. It’s reality!”

Jones adds that this realism is what drew her to “Eureka Day” in the first place.

“The play feels like art imitating life,” she says. “This is the way people talk, the way people act. At the same time, it’s so full of surprises and so amazingly funny. I laughed out loud reading the script. I know the Asolo Rep audience will, too.”

The playwright was also surprised. Like many other New College graduates, you might assume he’d set out to tackle a big picture issue. He didn’t. Spector’s focus was close to home.

He’d originally envisioned “Eureka Day” as a microcosm of the Berkeley scene.

Like “Portlandia,” the play’s satire flowed from the culture of a very specific community. Spector figured his play would probably remain an in-joke for a limited, local audience. He never dreamed it would become universal.

As the playwright noted in his talk with Hupp, “Specificity is the secret to universality.”

“Because it was commissioned by the Aurora Theater in Berkeley, I was very intentionally writing a play that would feel very Berkeley — a gift to that audience. And the people there responded to it very positively. But there was this question: “Of course everybody here likes it, because it’s about them, and they’re seeing themselves reflected on stage. But will anyone connect to it anywhere else?”

There are “Eureka Day” productions in Australia now.

The answer is obviously yes.


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