Schooling the teacher

Aurora Theatre's The First Grade tackles life lessons

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Sydney hits the ground
Photo by David Allen

THEATER From the mouths of babes come some pretty hefty words in Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson's initially darkish, ultimately feel-goody new comedy: congenial, altruistic, pertinacious, solipsism. But it's the way they sound in the mouth of his protagonist, 57-year-old first-grade teacher Sydney (a thoroughly disarming Julia Brothers), that gets our attention. They're new to her too for the most part, at least in daily use. Freshly gathered from her class in a dictionary game of "stump the teacher," the words loll in her mouth like some savored sweet, so much does she herself relish using them.

That these vocab words take on a thematic flavor for our winningly oddball heroine, and for us, comes as little surprise: The First Grade — one of four scripts selected in 2009 for potential development as part of Aurora Theatre's Global Age Project, and now enjoying its world premiere in a handy production helmed by artistic director Tom Ross — is a play about what adults learn and do not learn over the course of increasingly fractured and fractious lives. The children, by contrast — and there are several others who figure in the plot besides Sydney's first-graders -- are all offstage presences.

Sydney has her classroom shtick down. As the play opens she addresses the audience as her class with an easy authority that is hilariously convincing in its confidence, probity, and self-indulged eccentricity. But home is another matter, despite amusingly similar attempts to impose order in this realm. Here the "natural" state of things goes topsy-turvy: Sydney's a divorcée whose embittered ex-husband (a delightfully malcontented Warren David Keith) still lives under the same roof. Meanwhile, her grown daughter (Rebecca Schweitzer), a wife and mother herself, has moved back in with her parents, professed contempt for her own Ritalin-dosed child, and reverted to infantile tussles with mom over a hidden cache of cookies.

At the same time, Sydney wrestles creakily and crankily with an aging body and two particularly bad knees. This brings her into contact with a physical therapist (Tina Sanchez), a young Latina mother whom the overbearingly direct Sydney soon has sobbing mid-session while confessing to her own marital nightmare. Moved from thorny solipsism to a warm rush of altruism by the young woman's story, Sydney offers support and shelter from what seems an abusive, potentially dangerous relationship with the woman's husband, a disfigured Iraq War vet.

Already by this point in the story we've heard variations of "crazy" and "dangerous" liberally applied to just about every on- and offstage character. But it's only when Sydney brings this stranger into the dysfunctional family fold that these unofficial vocab words take on literal import. This paranoid streak in Johnson's play, colored immigrant brown, is partly counterbalanced by the appearance of a dignified and peaceable Spanish-speaking father-in-law (Paul Santiago), and a plot twist that, while unsettlingly ironic, ultimately redeems "altruism" for the home team.

In its sometimes forced but generally witty dialogue and its wide range of thematic colors, The First Grade makes for an engaging evening, especially as led by the indomitable Brothers. It also marks an overdue Bay Area debut for playwright Johnson, after 20-plus years of productions in the Windy City. (Maybe the time is ripe. Another play of his, A Guide for the Perplexed, was chosen as a 2010 Aurora GAP winner, and just received a reading at the Berkeley theater ahead of its Chicago world premiere.) If First Grade's final note sounds a little too sweetly, I suppose it's in keeping with the practice of treats after a lesson learned. *

THE FIRST GRADE

Through Feb. 28

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