When we first meet this group of four parents and the school principal in Jonathan Spector’s “Eureka Day” at Asolo Repertory Theatre, they’re discussing whether the ethnic identity categories on the school’s website are inclusive enough, or potentially exclusive.
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They all seem so content, yet the smiles are often tight, subtly betraying their true feelings, which will give way as the school erupts in a mumps epidemic that creates a deepening rift on how best to handle things. Should the school require parents to have their children vaccinated, or should it be more tolerant of different points of view?
The committee only moves forward through consensus, but that’s going to be difficult this time. And just wait until they open up the conversation to the full school community in a virtual meeting, where parents use the online chat system to insult, taunt and humiliate one another.
Spector, a New College of Florida graduate, wrote this play in 2017, well before the coronavirus pandemic erupted, causing more than a million deaths in the U.S. and dividing our nation politically.
It’s a comedic drama that pokes fun at the efforts for understanding, compassion and acceptance, but dig a little (not too far) and you’ll see the hatred and racism emerge through name-calling and more that can turn a meeting into a battlefield.
On one level Spector’s script seems prescient in the way he wrote about all the conflicting issues we have dealt with during the COVID pandemic. On the other, these Eureka Day meetings pale in dramatic comparison to the fireworks that erupt regularly at Sarasota County School Board meetings, which have generated some national attention.
“Eureka Day” may not be as dramatic as the real thing, but it is certainly more entertaining, even as it makes you think and sometimes squirm about points of view that contrast with your own.
The production is set in the school library, inventively designed by Riw Rakkulchon in the school’s orange and purple colors, with curved benches, bookshelves and some visual surprises.
Director Bianca Laverne Jones allows for a casual build-up of emotions during the introductory part of the play. The characters may get a little testy at first, but a deep breath gets them all centered again. You might appreciate the way some of the characters fumble around for the right word choices as they desperately try not to offend anyone.
The group is led by Paul Slade Smith, the milquetoast principal, who likes to quote the poet Rumi while searching for calm and rationality. He is easily flustered by some of the stronger personalities around him, particularly the president Suzanne, the bouncy tennis-loving mother played by Anne Bowles, who exudes confidence as long as the agreements go her way. That’s why she casts a wary eye on Jasmine Bracey as Carina, the newest committee member, a Black woman who recently moved from Maryland. She says a lot with facial reactions and cut-off phrases that are never quite completed.
The cast also includes Chris Amos as the wealthy Eli (he must be some kind of tech wiz), whose personal life becomes central to the story, and Celia Mei Rubin as Meiko, who is open and friendly at the start but becomes more withdrawn as the play goes on. The cast works well together with a grounded, believable quality. And we feel we know them a bit more through the costumes by Devario D. Simmons.
At times, Spector’s script competes with itself with overlapping conversations or the way the often hilarious chat comments take us away from committee debate. I wanted to take in all of it. But the play also turns a light on all of us, how we behave and how we respond to information when we can’t agree on the basic facts. It gives us something to contemplate in an entertaining format.
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