November 16, 2021

Comedy of manners for quarrelsome age

Eureka Day
by Jonathan Spector
State Theatre South Australia.
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
November 16. Tickets $39 – $79.
Duration : 130 minutes (including interval)
Until November 27.

Californian playwright, Jonathan Spector could not have known, when his sparklingly witty comedy of ethics opened in Berkeley in April 2018, that Eureka Day would be so alarmingly prescient of the corrosive social divisions in a global pandemic.

Set in the Eureka Day Community school, the play opens on the first day of the 2017-18 academic year and four well-intentioned members of the governing board meet with the Head of School to discuss governance. The scene is a wickedly comic portrait of a group in contortions of virtue signalling, anxiously avoiding any unintended verbal offense while competing and contesting in a blizzard of micro-aggressions.

It is funny and verges on cynical, but the play’s real action begins when Don, the principal, reads a letter from the health board declaring an outbreak of mumps in the school, requiring immediate quarantine action.

In Rosalba Clemente’s vibrantly sharp but also poignant production, State Theatre has found a work that captures the current reality of the ‘freedom from’ versus the ‘freedom to’ argument. The split, between those abiding with empirical medical advice and those opposing vaccination as a greater health risk, is played out at Eureka Day school as it is in cities and towns across the privileged parts of the COVID world.

Meg Wilson’s set, warmly lit by Mark Shelton, is a colourful, welcoming school room, visually perky with posters and teaching aids, with huge pale wooden rafters rising over the child size tables and chairs. The AV design by Chris Petridis for the live-stream scene, when Don and the board run an online meeting which ends with the parents’ comments thread unravelling into verbal mayhem, is a highlight. Stuart Day’s music –ranging from Rockabilly to Bach piano and upbeat electronica – enhances the mood.

The performances are evenly strong. Spector’s text allows manoeuvre from broad comedy to emotional detail and the actors use it well. Caroline Craig brings a desperate side to Suzanne, the chairperson, Matt Hyde a nervous energy to Eli the dotcom millionaire and, as Meiko, Juanita Navas-Nguyen captures the despair of perpetual environmental vigilance. Glynn Nicholas is excellent as Don, the dithery head, unctuously reading the wisdom of Rumi, and Sara Zwangobani, memorable as Carina, provides, we think, a rational true north in the swirling argument.

State Theatre has closed their season on a high note. Eureka Day is not a Eureka moment but a disturbing study of the fruitless search for consensus when division becomes intractable. When this happens over mumps, what hope is there dealing with the Delta Dawn?

“Comedy of manners for quarrelsome age”, The Australian November 19, p.12.

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