The women of "Our Practical Heaven" pledge to stick together come hell or high water. Life has other plans, of course.
Marriages crumble, bodies give out, and climate change puts the family's seaside home in jeopardy. The rising seas, not to mention changing tides of allegiances, force the women to rethink their plans for the future of their family and the planet.
Anthony Clarvoe, who wrote "Pick Up Ax," "Ambition Facing West," and "Ctrl+Alt+Del," muses on Chekhovian themes with three generations of women facing the 21st century arm-in-arm. Seagulls soar over head, the tide crashes into the shore, and these formidable woman face the fickle forces of fate. In one sense, nothing happens. But Clarvoe adds up the little details of daily living in a rich portrait of mothers, daughters and perpetual misunderstandings.
Sensitively directed by Allen McKelvey in its world premiere at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, "Our Practical Heaven" sweeps us away with eccentric characters and universal themes. If the play hasn't quite found its wings yet, there's no denying its piercing sense of melancholy. "Heaven" may feel unfinished, but it's also quite lovely, and Clarvoe explores the terrain of intimacy and sisterhood with delicacy and insight.
Matriarch Vera (the incomparable Joy Carlin) holds court at the family's oceanside retreat. Her mind has been diminished by the ailments of age, and her spirit is broken by the death of her spouse. She is preparing to bid farewell to the worries of this world, even as her daughters and granddaughters bicker over the banal.
Sasha (a tender turn by Anne Darragh) has devoted her life to mothering her daughters, Suze (Blythe Foster) and Leez (Adrienne Walters), but along with the love she has also given them the aftershocks of her anxiety disorder. She's so awash in fear that she can't see Suze is a noble-hearted activist and Leez is a quirky dreamer.
Only Sasha's lifelong friend Willa (the always riveting Julia Brothers) can appreciate how loving Suze and Leez are. She knows because her own daughter, Magz (Lauren Spencer), would rather be anywhere than in the same room with her. Magz has a debilitating disease that leaves her in chronic pain, which explains her hostility to tenderness. Willa has managed to make a fortune, but she can't seem to communicate with her own child.
The failure of humans to connect is the central theme here. The older women are devout birders, while the younger ones stare at their handheld devices as if hypnotized. Clarvoe makes clever use of texting between the girls to show how they see their mothers. They pound out snappy little asides in the background of the adult conversation because they are more comfortable online than off.
Unfortunately, the playwright leans too heavily on this device, with too many shards of conversation projected on the walls of the set. His points about the many ways people struggle to make contact are apt, but the constant shtick with the cellphones feels forced on this otherwise airy narrative.
Clarvoe also needs to flesh out some of the connective tissue of these relationships. Why, for example, would Magz just now be explaining her condition to Suze if they grew up together?
While the actresses beautifully fill in the emotional context between the play's squabbles, there's not quite enough back story here to ground our fascination. Hinted-at romances, long-simmering betrayals and sibling feuds promise to explode but never do.
Clarvoe has created some enchanting scenes, however, and he has also imbued the play with a deeply felt sense of the wonder of birding. Those perceptive nuggets about the culture of birding give the play its most sublime moments.
The playwright captures the profound feeling of loss that nature enthusiasts must feel in a world where what they love is deteriorating before their eyes. Extreme weather patterns and a tattered ecosystem stop the annual migration to Vera's pond. She dreams of her granddaughters sitting by its banks with their own grandchildren. But they know the whole property will be underwater long before then. That pond is her cherry orchard, her vanishing dream.
Michael Palumbo's lighting plays a crucial role in summoning up the wistful atmosphere of the piece. The characters seem to be basking in the eternal sunshine of a day at the beach. Clouds hang on the horizon, but for a few moments these women, like the feathered creatures they gaze at, find some fleeting bliss.
By Anthony Clarvoe
Through: March 3
Where: Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours,
15 minutes (one
Tickets: $35-$60, 510-843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org