Kenny Toll and Anna Ishida in Jonathan Spector’s This Much I Know. Credit: Kevin Berne

I tried not to expect too much from Jonathan Spector’s latest world premiere play, This Much I Know, at the Aurora Theatre. After all, I loved how his Eureka Day surprised and delighted me. It went on to win awards off-Broadway and is now opening at London’s Old Vic, starring the terrific Helen Hunt. So, I thought I shouldn’t assume his new work would measure up.

This Much I Know, Aurora Theatre, through Oct. 2

And guess what? Although wholly different and more overtly cerebral, This Much I Know is a thoughtful, funny, and fascinating play about a psychology professor, his wife, an accident, Joseph Stalin’s daughter’s defection to the U.S., and a white supremacist’s son’s doubts about his family beliefs. But really, what lies beneath this theatrical, creative, and entertaining two-plus hours of theater is how our brain works, how we make decisions, and how our minds can change.    

Playwright Spector was enthralled by Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 best-selling nonfiction book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman described the dichotomy between two modes of thought: System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. How Spector used this rather academic book as context for his drama is a testament to his talent.

Psychology professor Lukesh (Rajesh Bose) teaches the type of class I would have gotten up early to take. He’s charmingly verbal, erudite, and engaging. His command of 21st century visual aids (a Spector hallmark) signals that he is in control of the class material, although he appears to be ad-libbing. But as things move forward, he veers from the planned lecture to talk about his wife, Natalya, who has left him.

Though free of fault, Natalya (Anna Ishida) was the cause of a tragic death. Not finding the sympathy and solace she needs from Lukesh and unable to free herself from guilt, she impulsively travels to Russia to pursue her family history, which involves Stalin and his daughter, Svetlana. Lukesh seems unable to understand what Natalya needs from him. It’s undoubtedly not mansplaining that the accident wasn’t her fault.

Anna Ishida in Jonathan Spector’s This Much I Know.

As a bit of an afterthought to the central theme of life in a marriage, a student from an infamous white nationalist family (Kenny Toll) confides to Lukesh about his background. Over some time, and with charming naïveté, the student finds himself questioning his family’s attitudes.

Aurora’s artistic director, Josh Costello, has once again artfully directed this Jonathan Spector play. And This Much I Know isn’t an easy show to direct. Happily, all three actors are enormously talented and pull off the subtleties of their multiple roles with great aplomb. Instantly, in full view of the audience, the actors morph into new characters using only their body movements, accents, and a few props to signal the change. Kenny Toll is particularly adept at the transmogrifications. And Anna Ishida is equally convincing as Svetlana and Natalya. The cleverly designed set (Tanya Orellana) has some effective, and amusing, surprises.

This Much I Know presents sophisticated issues without sacrificing the theatricality that keeps its audience fully engaged. It’s the kind of play you will talk about long after you leave the theater.

Live performances of This Much I Know at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre run through Oct. 2. This Much I Know is two hours and 5 minutes long, including two short intermissions. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing is required. Tickets are $20-$75. Pay-what-you-can tickets, $20 rush tickets, and other discounts are available. Streamed performances are available from Sept. 27-Oct. 2. Each streamed version is available for 36 hours, from 12 p.m. on the performance date to midnight the following day. For information and tickets, visit Aurora Theatre or call 510-843-4822.

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...