In Samoa, 68 people – mostly children – have died of measles in recent weeks, victims of an abysmally low immunization rate resulting, in significant part, from misinformation spread on social media by groups opposed to vaccination. The Samoan government imposed a brief curfew and began a crash immunization program. As The Washington Post noted in an editorial on the crisis, “What is dangerous, as the Samoa crisis demonstrates, is to spread false information that leaves a community seriously vulnerable…Bad information that leads people to hesitate about vaccines is a killer.”
On the heels of these events, Mosaic Theater has opened a new play by Jonathan Spector, Eureka Day, which centers on the conflict around immunization. It’s a comedy. Particularly in the first act, the comedy succeeds brilliantly. Five board members of an ultra-progressive Berkeley CA private school, earnest seekers after consensus, hell-bent on sensitivity, meet to discuss issues affecting their precious bubble, such as a troublesome bathroom renovation.
Don (Sum Lunay), the convener of the group, in his sweet, rather feckless, way, tries to facilitate harmony among his colleagues, encouraging deep breathing and reading soothing excerpts from the work of Sufi poet Rumi. Eli (Elan Zafir) a tech millionaire turned stay-at-home dad, whose engagingly awkward body language signals his inner nerd, is having an affair with the somewhat shy, nervous Meiko (Regina Aquino), who comforts herself with knitting during the discussions. Suzanne (Lise Bruneau), one of the school’s founders, enjoys the exercise of power that she would be loath to admit she possesses. The newest board member, Carina (Erica Chamblee), is the only African-American person on the board. Initially deferential to the more experienced members, Carina becomes a key player as the plot evolves.
Working with director Serge Seiden, the five cast members create vivid, strikingly individual characters who present what amounts to a master class in tight ensemble acting. Their timing and reactions to each other’s lines are a delight to watch.
The foibles of the terminally progressive are easy targets for a satirist, and Spector doesn’t miss his aim. The stakes begin to rise when Meiko’s child begins feeling ill. Soon, the county health department orders countermeasures for what has become a mumps outbreak. How is the school to respond? The board’s commitment to participatory consensus-building leads to a live Facebook forum with parents. Aided by spot-on, intricately timed projections of Facebook postings by Dylan Uremovich and Theodore J. H. Hulsker, the ensuing online scrum is a roll-in-the-aisles funny exhibition of adults behaving badly. The scene is the most literal, and intentional, upstaging of an entire cast I have ever seen, and it is a wonder to behold.
The play’s comic momentum slackens in the second act, as the serious implications of the mumps epidemic begin to sink in and conflicts masked by the characters’ politeness emerge more starkly. A character’s child who has caught the illness has to be hospitalized. Another character feels terrible guilt about her role in the outbreak. The implicit bias of a third – assumptions about race do become an issue – is exposed.
There is sharp disagreement about the school’s response to the crisis and even sharper conflict about immunization itself. How does the board, and implicitly our society, balance scientific data about the necessity of immunization with the traumatic personal experience of people who have suffered a tragic loss that they attribute to vaccinations gone wrong? How do we maintain respectful relationships with people with whom we fundamentally disagree? And ultimately, how do we resolve an issue on which there is intractable disagreement? It does not reveal too much of the plot to say that, in the end, it is old-fashioned organizational politicking, rather than warm consensus, that carries the day.
There is one moment in the plot-intensive second act that requires mention. Through much of the act, Meiko is sad, withdrawn, curled up over her knitting or scarfing down gluten-free scones. But when she is prodded to say what she thinks about the vaccination controversy, she explodes in a spectacular monologue. How can she, who has made such errors in her own life, know what is right for anyone else? How can science and technology, which hold such promise for betterment and simultaneously have created such destruction, by the arbiter of our actions? How can anyone really know anything? It is a stunning, fearless acting moment for Aquino.
In his program note, Mosaic artistic director Ari Roth comments that Spector, like other playwrights represented in the group’s season, seek the “anti-racist golden mean of principled awareness…taking us to an unexpected place: a space where reason and brave temperance reign supreme.” As a character suggests, we don’t want to create villains.
The play wants us to understand and empathize, without agreeing, with people we believe are deeply wrong. I wonder about that.
It doesn’t require an Iago, or a dictator, to kill people. Nice folks, with whom we can relate on a personal level, can be dangerous fools who do damage just as effectively as villains, and whose mischief conscientious people must oppose. What’s next? A script exploring the inner lives of climate change deniers? A play seeking empathy with the “fine people on both sides” present at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville? I’m not holding my breath. Meanwhile, while greatly admiring Mosaic’s production of Eureka Day, I’d rather exercise my empathy with respect to families in Samoa whose children died because of bad information that led people to hesitate about vaccines.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission
Eureka Day plays through January 5, 2020, presented by Mosaic Theater Company in the Lang Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington DC. For tickets, call (202) 399-7993 ext. 2 or go online.
READ John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column, “At Mosaic’s ‘Eureka Day,’ a class in laughs and spats is in session”