Arts Listings

‘The First Grade’ Opens at Aurora Theater

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday February 11, 2010 - 09:55:00 AM

Sydney—who would have been called a grammar school teacher back in the day—faces her class (the audience) and explains to her precocious first-graders how to act in her absence, using polysyllables like “conviviality,” words the kids have brought in from their academic and professional parents.  

Neither Sydney nor the audience can predict at this point that she’ll be experiencing, even embodying, a few of the concepts behind those words, all in a somewhat cross-eyed effort to get out from under yet another: “solipsism.” 

In Joel Drake Johnson’s The First Grade, now onstage at the Aurora, Sydney’s feeling it from all sides: her divorced husband (Warren David Keith) still lives on “his side” of the house, where he entertains his new girlfriend, pending sale of the property; their gloomy daughter (Rebecca Schweitzer), separated from her husband, has moved back in with her Ritalin-dosed son. 

All of which prompts Sydney’s respite from school, as much as middle-aged aches and pains, to visit a physical therapist. 

Mora, the therapist (Tina Sanchez), is very professional, humoring Sydney’s motormouthed telling of her problems, just maintaining a slightly clinical edge. But when Sydney queries her about her own domestic life, discovering Mora’s separated, with two little boys, Sydney’s inquisitiveness provokes a tearful reaction. Was it Sydney’s relentlessly “in- your-face” manner (as her daughter’s types it), or a moment of recognition between strangers, similarly stressed women of two generations? 

And two cultures within one society. Crucial to the play’s meaning—based on a very rational, well thought-out dramaturgy, which underpins, not belies, what otherwise could seem merely a hybrid comedy-melodrama—are differences between the way Mora and her Latino family express their “convivial” (in its older meaning) dysfunctionality, lacking the arch glibness and passive-aggressive qualities of their Anglo counterparts.  

Big similarities bind them together: helplessness, frustration, rage at the deadlock of sociability and lapses in communication and self-understanding in their respective situations. 

Johnson has a canny ear for the play of contemporary Middle-American speech, picked up by sitcoms, which spew it back into The Din (as poet Lew Welch once called it) of social discourse, dolled up with teleplay mannerisms—the same way old movie dialogue stylized our slang over more than half a century. A dysfunctional family trades barbs in The First Grade, everybody coming on funny—until tears or a not-so-cute outburst erupts in response rather than canned laughter. 

The First Grade remains a comedy to the end, truly humorous and unpredictable, meeting contradiction and finding opposites in its situations, dialogue, character sketches. 

It was that genius of modern comedy, Pirandello, who defined humor as “a sense of the opposite,” encountering and showing “what you find, instead of what you expect to find.” 

The First Grade doesn’t opt for black humor, despite an unexpected—though carefully, discreetly prepared for—night-time scene when the private tensions building up in Sydney’s family burst forth on a parallel front that the family witnesses, as if in a mirror, in public.  

Paul Santiago and Adrian Anchondo, as well as the others in this tight ensemble provide fine performances. There’s no chiaroscuro or overt mannerism, though Johnson uses a kind of multiplicity of perspective within the same frame—so the play’s not exactly realistic though it mimes realism—with counter-intuitive stylizations of speech and arrangement of scenes, all rationalized, displayed (as it were) in a bright, steady light. 

(Nina Ball’s set adds three-dimensional form to these effects.) 

Sydney’s fucusing of her thwarted maternal instincts on a virtual stranger—which, like much of good intentions, could pave the way to hell—results in a kind of double reverse: two unhappy tableaux are clarified, though nothing’s resolved, and her “in your face” (as her daughter describes it) intensity leads to a kind of practical wisdom. Director (and Aurora artistic director) Tom Ross and his excellent cast communicate the unusual qualities of a play that starts out seeming ordinary, unassuming, even, light fare for cable TV—what too many new plays, chosen and staged at our regional repertory theaters turn out to be, stalking horses for another, more commercial—and less immediate—medium. 

(The First Grade is the very first play—and a world premiere, at that—produced on Aurora’s main stage from winners in the Global Age Project staged reading series Ross initiated. Another play by Johnson—a playwright who’s been produced in Chicago, if not here before—A Guide for the Perplexed, was performed at a GAP staged reading Feb. 1.)