'Our Practical Heaven' Strains Towards Chekhovian Family Drama, But Mostly it Just Strains

Our Practical Heaven, which had its world premiere at the Aurora Theatre Thursday night, shows us a world where birds and people return to their home year after year. It also shows us a world where cell phone reception stretches into the deep woods, where climate change is displacing wildlife and where technology can cause literary erosion even in the last bastion of higher culture: namely theater.

Anthony Clarvoe's unlikable play was a finalist in the Aurora's Global Age Project, an initiative to cultivate theater that addresses life in the 21st century and beyond. In contemporary life, the spoken word is becoming a precious resource; the theater has been a refuge for articulate speech, eloquent language, or at least verbal and human interplay.

But playwrights can choose to bypass all of this. Marital disputes can unfold silently on characters' cell phone screens for audiences to only imagine. Banter can be reduced to texting with chat acronyms and wordlessly projected txtspk. Powerful emotions can be evaded using images of Facebook posts. Director Allen McKelvey and playwright Anthony Clarvoe have made all these language-inhibiting choices in Our Practical Heaven. Vaguely formed characters, stiff levity, heavy-handed depth, and affected lyricism are other reasons this play disappoints.

In Clarvoe's slogging saga, six characters encompassing three generations of women return to a beloved beach house season after season to loiter under one roof. Clarvoe thickly paints a sense of "Shared Experience". Later on, the play will strive towards Chekhovian melancholy and longing, but the script flits this way and that before landing on a final mood.


The home belongs to Vera, an elderly widow whose doors are always been open to friends, outcasts, and iconoclasts. As Vera, Joy Carlin gives the play's strongest performance. There's a peace, quiet, and unspoken texture to both her performance and her appealing character.

Anne Darragh, who plays Vera's daughter Sasha, brings tense talky clamorousness to the stage. Sasha is a bundle of nerves and Darragh's grating performance dominates the play. Sasha is forever worrying about worst-case scenario calamities. She barks at her daughters to use sunscreen and she panics at the possibility that her mother might trip on a box and die alone. To top it all, she's a big whiner. We could sympathize with her or laugh at her. Under the best circumstances, we could do both. But under McKelvey's off-note direction, Darragh's version of Sasha is shrill and overwrought.

Her daughters Suze and Leez (Blythe Foster and Adrienne Walters) complain about their mother via text. In these instances, texting culture and screen life could add to live theater, if, for instance, screen life and the real world contradicted one another or added further dimensionality to characters. In this play, the use of text messaging projected in real time is a gimmick. And character complexity is in short supply.

Julia Brothers plays Willa, Sasha's oldest friend -- the two are "honorary sisters," (as they say again and again). Brothers' character is perhaps the most fleshed out of them all. Vera took her into the family when she was down on her luck and now she has become a powerful businesswoman, but also a devoted friend and a selfless mother to her chronically ill prodigal daughter (Lauren Spencer). These sides of Willa reveal themselves at brief points in the narrative -- moments when the play wakes itself up.

Other scenes strain towards lightheartedness and cuddly effusiveness to hit home the theme that this blended family of fiercely close females cherish one another. In a scene that stresses the home-spun fun of close-knit family routine, household chores become a communal dance of synchronicity and pillow tossing. Other scenes show intimacy through lazy lollygagging. But the downtime feels less like relaxation and more like these women are stranded at their precious beach house, just six characters in search of objective.

Our Practical Heaven runs through March 3, 2013 at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit auroratheatre.org.

All photos by David Allen.