Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: Becoming Julia at City Club--a good PBS special

By John A. McMullen II
Monday December 06, 2010 - 04:07:00 PM
Dave Garrett, Sally Clawson Janis Steven.
Benjamin Privitt
Dave Garrett, Sally Clawson Janis Steven.

Becoming Julia is an extraordinarily well-acted biopic of Julia Morgan’s life and accomplishments played in the perfect setting of her “Little Castle” as 

the Berkeley City Club was first known. Belinda Taylor’s script could well win awards as a PBS afternoon special for intellectual female teenagers. However, the script has no conflict in it, and that’s what drives a play. Ironically, in the play Julia Morgan refuses to reveal her personal life to her young biographer, acknowledging, “Without that, it would be a boring book.”  

Janis Stevens as Julia brings a realism that is a joy in this small space. She plays her both old and young, with all the nuances that make us believe that perhaps the architect has returned to her grand room with the hearth.  

Sally Clawson is truly amazing in the supporting role of multiple characters, not just in mien or gesture, but down to the timbre of her voice changing as she portrays Julia’s mother, Phoebe Hearst, Marion Davies, the young wife of the biographer or any of the others. She brings just the right touch of glamour and sexuality in the role of Davies, the “Million Dollar Baby” of “rosebud” fame, wearing sparkly, semi-translucent trousers—a perfect blend of Harlow and Dietrich. The costumes by Gail Russell are rich, simple, add to the characters and put us in the time period. 

Dave Garrett as Hearst, Maybeck, and other larger-than-life portly gentlemen of the early last century, is larger on stage than in life with an imposing figure and commanding manner, and was born to wear a high, starched collar. Paul Baird plays Julia’s fragile brother and the hotshot reporter who wants to be her biographer. Both actors bring the essence of characters from 1930’s movies to bear in their roles. 

Director Barbara Oliver founded Aurora Theatre decades ago in the very theatre where BECOMING plays and that now houses Central Works. Her staging and her encouragement and coaching of the actors keep the play moving in a believable, “no acting please” way which is essential for the intimate stage. However, some clumsy entrances and exits in the dark with the lights from the hall spilling in, is an off-putting way to begin and end the first act.  

Belinda Taylor’s writing brings us the details of the first American woman architect’s back-story and accomplishments, regales us with architectural concepts (“the golden rectangle”) that expand our appreciation of the arts, and offers a finer appreciation of our surroundings. Ms. Taylor takes license with flight of fancy that brings in hearth and home gods Janus and Vesta (as an inscrutably Irish Roman goddess!). I was expecting a true “deus ex machina,” but this fancy turns into philosophizing that yanks us out of the story. While Ms. Taylor provides the players with easy dialogue to speak, it is devoid of that catalogue which keeps us enthralled: sex, violence, money, secrets, family or psychological abuse, or any other uncomfortable underpinnings of human instinct and appetite. Go to BECOMING to soak up the learning experience that Ms. Taylor has penned, but leave other expectations at home.  



Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley. Playing through January 9th 

Tickets at (510) 984-3864 or 

Written by Belinda Taylor, directed by Barbara Oliver, produced by Sabrina Kline, costumes by Gail Russell, lighting by Carrie Mullen, set by Martin Flynn, props by Devon LaBelle, composition and sound by Chris Houston, house management by Mondia Doty and Alexi Taylor, graphics by Helene Goldberg, and stage management by Mina Yueh 

With: Paul Baird, Sally Clawson, Dave Garrett, Janis Stevens 

John A. McMullen II writes as Eye from the Aisle currently exclusively for the Berkeley Daily Planet. Thanks to EJ Dunne for editing. Comments to