Photo: David Allen
Three generations of women gather in Our Practical Heaven. Photo: David Allen

Our Practical Heaven is a personality study about three generations of women who gather over several holiday seasons.

They meet at the beach house owned by widowed grandmother Vera (wonderfully acted by Joy Carlin). Vera’s daughter, the insecure and fragile Sasha (top performance by Anne Darragh), and Sasha’s two teenage daughters, Leez and Suze (Adrienne Walters and Blythe Foster, both skilled at their roles). Vera’s “honorary daughter,” the loving yet ambitious Willa (excellent Julia Brothers) and her mysteriously ill daughter, Magz (Lauren Spencer captures a difficult role), are an integral element in the familial group.

Our Practical Heaven explores the ever-shifting connections and bonds among the women. While they swim in the pond, bird watch and clean the house, we observe the changing undercurrents of family allegiance, loyalty, and jealousy. 

Aurora’s production is the world premier of the play. Author Anthony Clarvoe (Pick Up Ax, Show and Tell, Ambition Facing West) was the winner of Aurora’s 2011 Global Age Project, in which playwrights submit their plays hoping for a chance to develop their work with Aurora. Clarvoe describes Our Practical Heaven as a personal piece, and it shows.

As the play begins, we gather that the beach house is too close to the ocean to resist global warming’s rising tides. No big deal is made about this, but it does underscore the uncertainty and apprehension in the women’s lives. The coincidence of Hurricane Sandy is a bit too close to home.

The overlong first act is an exposition of the women’s lives and their hierarchy in the household. Their love for the matriarch Vera is the glue binding the group. The teenagers text each other during the “grown-ups” conversation. The texts are projected on large screens above the stage, but nothing vital is expressed. The usual teenaged, “I hate my mother” and other clichés are exchanged. The middle generation worries about Vera. Willa worries about Magz’s ambiguous illness. Sasha fears everything — her cancer might return or Vera might trip and fall.

There are many allusions to birding and bird feathers throughout the play. The discussion about “migrant fall-out” was an interesting reference to the family dynamics. During a strong wind, some migrating birds cannot fly, and so drop into the pond to rest or die. So too, the beach house is a refuge from a difficult world for the group. One character sums up the family by saying, “some families drink; we watch birds.”

The second act speeds up a bit as some tension develops. Another season has passed. Vera’s death has caused a generational shift. Now one of the teenagers cooks the Thanksgiving meal. How the family will carry on because of such changes is left open-ended.

Although not without merit, Our Practical Heaven could use some improvement and editing. There are just too many characters populating Aurora’s small stage. Perhaps three teenagers are one too many. I’d like to know more about the vibrant Willa and less about the annoying Sasha.

Similar to some of Anita Brookner’s novels, Our Practical Heaven concentrates on exposition and character, rather than movement. Yet, at the close of the novels, as in Our Practical Heaven, subtle shifts have occurred.

Our Practical Heaven runs through March 3, 2013. For information and tickets, visit Aurora Theatre.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...