When New College of Florida alumnus Jonathan Spector wrote “Eureka Day” – a play that centers on the outbreak of a potential epidemic at a private school and the parental debate that ensues over vaccinating students against the illness – it was 2017.
Asolo Repertory Theatre Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards found the play “hilarious” when he saw it in New York two years later, though he questioned whether the subject had enough general appeal to warrant mounting a production in Sarasota. After all, he says, “at the time anti-vaxxers were a small subset of humanity and I wasn’t sure it was something most people would relate to.”
Needless to say, times have changed. The global pandemic that began in 2020 set off a nationwide battle over vaccines and mask mandates, government intervention and personal freedom, risks and rights that continues to this day. “Eureka Day,” says Edwards, went from being “a rather peripheral thing in my mind, to being in the eye of the hurricane.”
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When it opens this week at the Cook Theatre in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, it’s likely every person in the audience will be able to relate to the hysterical – in both senses of the word – controversy that erupts when the board of a school that bends over backwards to “make everyone feel welcome” finds its own membership at fiercely combative odds.
“It’s like Jonathan looked into a crystal ball and predicted the pandemic, vaccine hesitancy and all the vitriol that comes with that,” says Paul Slade Smith, a Broadway actor (“Finding Neverland,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) who will make his Asolo Rep debut as Don, the school board leader. “He predicted the kind of race relations we’ve ended up with in 2020. He predicted horrible Zoom meetings. He can be proud of what foresight he had. It’s like, how did he know?”
Spector says news stories about a 2014 outbreak of measles at California’s Disneyland, that led the state to change its vaccination policies from some of the loosest in the nation to some of the strictest, were his starting point. But personal experience was what really fueled his creative vision.
“That was in the air, but it was more from an experience I’d had a couple times of being in a conversation with someone who was very smart, educated and who I thought had the same politics and world view as I did,” says Spector, who wrote the play as a commission for a theater in Berkeley, California. “Then you discover they don’t believe in vaccines and there’s this strange moment of realizing you don’t live in the same reality. I was so curious about that.”
In particular, an incident at his car mechanic’s in the lead up to the 2016 election – during which someone expressed the belief that Hillary Clinton had personally murdered 27 people because “I saw it on YouTube” – lodged in his mind.
“It feels obvious now, but then it felt like, ‘How can you make a society with other people, a democracy with other people, if you can’t agree on some sort of baseline of reality. Which, of course, is where we all live now,” Spector said.
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As the play opens, Don is guiding a meeting of his racially and religiously diverse board – Suzanne (Ann Bowles), Carina (Jasmine Bracey), Meiko (Cella Mel Rubin) and Eli (Chris Amos) – in a discussion over whether the recent outbreak of illness means the school should alter require student vaccinations. It’s soon clear the school board leader is ill-equipped to navigate these turbulent waters.
“The way Don would paint Don is that he’s very kind, understanding, patient, the best kind of leader because he lets everyone have their input and their voice in the room,” says Smith, who is also a playwright. “But others would describe Don as a horrible leader because he is conflict avoidant and incapable of making decisive decisions. That’s the brilliance of Jonathan. He takes those two extreme points where you see, hilariously, how unproductive it is to go through life that way.”
Ultimately the board decides to host a “Community Activated Conversation,” letting parents weigh in on the debate via an online chat forum, with toxic comments from participants displayed as the increasingly distressed Don tries to maneuver between reading them and responding to the members in the meeting.
Spector’s script puts brackets around one or more words at the end of many sentences, which are meant to remain unspoken, though the actors are intended to still convey the full thrust of the thoughts behind them. This leads to a verbal volleying that is both entirely realistic and an interesting challenge for the actors, all of whom are making their Asolo debuts.
“It sounds more like people actually talking than any play has ever sounded since we half finish thoughts all the time,” says Smith, who is returning to the stage for the first time since the pandemic began. “Jonathan captures the human voice in a way I’ve never seen it done before and it’s thrilling to work on. But it takes work to get that to flow naturally.”
Bianca LaVerne Jones, who was last seen in the Asolo’s 2016 production of “Disgraced,” says she was immediately on board when Edwards contacted her about directing the production. (Jones is also slated to direct “Chicken & Biscuits” next season after serving as assistant director for the recent Broadway production.)
“When he first gave me the script, I said ‘Oh, wow,’” Jones says. “I told him I like the surprises and the hook into the play from a cultural standpoint. I can also say I relate deeply to these conversations because I’ve had them with my own family. The only reason my brother got vaccinated was because he had to in order to come to my Broadway debut.”
Spector, who will return to his college stomping grounds from his Oakland, California home for the opening, says he is still trying to understand “how the play sits now, post-pandemic, how it lands on people now.” Recent productions in Syracuse, N.Y. and Australia have produced comments from audience members and critics alike that the plays feels “cathartic, which wasn’t anything I had heard people say pre-pandemic.”
“I wonder if there’s a way in which it’s shifted for everybody, so that it now feels like this is a play about us all,” the playwright says.
That’s exactly what Smith predicts audiences will take away from this topical play, which both makes fun of and seriously skewers our human foibles.
“These people are us, and us in the situation of society, trying to say the right thing and doing really poorly at it,” Slade says. “Because they’re parents, the reason they’re in this room is because their children are in this school and thriving in this education environment, so they care very much that it succeeds. But none are equipped to necessarily come to agreement and they don’t behave well. It’s well-intentioned people unintentionally misbehaving. Which is all of us.”
Contact Carrie Seidman at email@example.com or 505-238-0392.
By Jonathan Spector, directed by Bianca LaVerne Jones. Asolo Repertory Theatre, Cook Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Runs May 11-June 4. 941-351-8000; asolorep.orghttp://www.asolorep.org
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: New College grad finds humor in clashing vaccine views in Asolo Rep play