Is it possible for everyone to be right at the same time? How do we hold society together when people can’t agree on basic facts? Mosaic Theater Company’s whip-smart Eureka Day takes a darkly comic journey through present day disputes around vaccination, social justice, and internet disinformation. This painfully timely comedy/drama from playwright Jonathan Spector explores what happens when people completely stop seeing eye to eye – and envisions how we can maybe pull things back together.
Eureka Day is the third entry in Mosaic’s “#WokeSeason”, which is dedicated to exploring and skewering the contradictions, bubbles, and blind spots of modern progressive thought and activism. From education to race to economics to speech, Mosaic Theater intends to leave no sacred cow on the left intact by season’s end. For its part, Eureka examines what happens when true feelings, beliefs, and even facts are suppressed in favor of consensus and “the good of the community.” It turns out it’s not pretty, but it is hilarious.
The play starts innocently enough, with a group of chipper parents meeting in a brightly colored classroom. The Eureka Day private school seems like a progressive’s dream: a California learning community built on social justice, incorporating all income levels, and run on pure consensus. The five members of the school’s executive committee convene around the burning issue of…racial identification options for students on the school website. It seems like it should be easy to resolve, until it isn’t.
Stay at home dad Eli (the multifaceted Elan Zafir) launches into a groan-inducing dialogue on racial identity, proving his wokeness through personal research and having relatives that adopted a minority child. Fellow board members dance maddeningly around the odd idea of race as a matter of nature vs. nurture, rather than offend anyone with actual honesty. Earth mother-type Suzanne (Lise Bruneau) tries to interject her own anodyne perspective, but keeps getting overruled by Eli. Birkenstock-wearing board chair Don (Sam Lunay) tries to keep the peace with flimsy platitudes. Bubbly Meiko (Regina Aquino) smiles and crochets, keeping her opinions to herself. And new board member Carina (Erica Chamblee) seems simply bewildered by all the mealy-mouthed rambling, acting as a no-nonsense voice for the uninitiated audience.
Spector’s early broadsides against performative liberal caricatures are softened with plenty of real affection for his characters. They are all trying – just a little too hard, and with a bit too much self-regard. Even as the board members finally resolve the website issue without much disagreement, the table seems set for a much bigger blow up. And blow up it does.
After some backstory between Eli and Meiko, Don calls an emergency meeting. A student has contracted the mumps, and the school will be quarantined until the infection subsides. The California Department of Public Health has issued the guidance that parents should vaccinate their kids. And that’s when the trouble starts. Suzanne balks at simply sending the vaccine notice out to parents without a disclaimer that “Eureka Day supports all viewpoints.” It’s obvious what she means, but Lise Bruneau masterfully cloaks Suzanne’s true motivations behind a mask of smiles and flattery. Sam Lunay plays Don’s conciliatory, uncertain leadership style to the hilt, agreeing that everyone be heard and greenlighting an ill-advised digital town hall on the topic of vaccinations.
Eureka Day closes January 5, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
With the board assembled for the meeting, projection specialists Dylan Uremovich and Theodore J.H. Hulsker display a simulated Facebook Live discussion among the school’s parents above the actors’ heads. As Don, Suzanne and company try to keep the vaccine discussion on the rails, things quickly spiral into ad hominem attacks, motivated reasoning, pseudo-science, and the inevitable Hitler reference by increasingly incensed parents. This hilarious, horrifying, and totally accurate distillation of the ugliness of social media and human nature hangs over the stage like a Sword of Damocles. In this, the play’s most brilliant sequence, the board’s hope for happy consensus crumbles into dust.
The second act opens with a sadly predictable tragedy, stemming from the breakdown of herd immunity among Eureka Day students. Elan Zafir and Regina Aquino team up for a lovely scene where Eli and Meiko drop their “everything’s great” masks to bond over the simple joy – and terror – of parenting. Zafir delivers a series of emotional gut-punches, accentuated by the faraway stare of his piercing eyes.
The board members grapple with the emotional fallout and struggle in vain to cut the Gordian Knot of mandatory vaccinations for returning students. Aquino mesmerizes during Meiko’s sudden, almighty freakout about humanity’s hubris around technological progress. Her emotional eruption paves the way for a titanic confrontation between Suzanne and Carina, hopelessly moderated by the bumbling but well-meaning Don. Carina speaks for the pro-vaccine viewpoint, with analogies about flat-earthers and 9/11 truthers while Suzanne counters with predictable protestations about Big Pharma conspiracies, vaccine injury, and autism. Spector could have left the story at that sadly familiar logjam, but he chose to dig deeper, down to the emotional bedrock of this life or death debate.
Bruneau gets her own star turn as she achingly recounts the family trauma that led Suzanne to her anti-vaccine convictions. Like Eli before her, Suzanne drops her sunny mask to acknowledge that parents are often scared, wrong, and truly struggling to do their best for their kids. Carina and Suzanne come together for a moving, if brief, reconciliation before they start to split over the harsh reality once again. The play concludes with a surprising twist that rocks the school to its core, as well as a delightful closing scene cameo.
Eureka Day bites off a lot, sometimes a bit more than it can chew. Themes of common good, erosion of expertise, conspiracy, privilege, hypocrisy, and mortality collide within the pristine classroom. But Suzanne and Carina’s fateful showdown reveals Spector’s thesis in a nutshell: It’s impossible and ill-advised to accept all viewpoints as equal, particularly when it comes to health and safety. But it’s perhaps equally perilous to deny each other’s humanity and ignore our common ground. Kudos to Spector and Mosaic for such a rip-roaring, insightful production – one built for our fractured time.
Eureka Day by Jonathan Spector. Directed by Serge Seiden. Featuring Regina Aquino, Lise Bruneau, Erica Chamblee, Sam Lunay, Elan Zafir, Mar Cox, and Thomas Nagata. Set Design by Andrew Cohen. Lighting Design by Brittany Shemuga. Costume Design by Brandee Mathies. Sound Design by David Lamont Wilson. Projection Design by Dylan Uremovich and Theodore J.H. Hulsker. Props Design by Deborah C. Thomas. Dramaturgy by Shirley Serotsky. Intimacy Consulting by Claudia Rosales Waters. Stage Management by April E. Carter. Assistant Stage Management by Thomas Nagata. Produced by Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Reviewed by Ben Demers.