Like any capable first grade teacher, Sydney (Julia Brothers) believes that classroom management can apply anywhere in life. With a raised right hand or withering look, one should be able to tame one’s depressive daughter or drunk ex-husband, preclude domestic abuse, and teach a young mother to love her kids. All the while, a first grade teacher must never lose composure. She must dispense cookies for good behavior, remonstrate when appropriate, and teach the importance of her favorite big vocabulary words: “altruism” and “congeniality.”
Thus, Sydney carries the day in Joel Drake Johnson’s The First Grade, now playing at Aurora Theatre under the direction of Tom Ross. The play is a work of fast-paced, contemporary writing, multicultural issues, and brittle humor. Best of all, it’s anchored by a powerful lead actress.
Brothers so fully inhabits the role that some audience members sit up straighter in their chairs. She cuts a matronly figure in brown pumps and a Julie Andrews haircut, her features so buttony they could have been drawn in crayon. Yet a soft, neurotic side melts through her steel exterior. She has crippling arthritis and seems to wilt easily, despite putting up a good facade. She contends that “white lies are permissible because they spread joy and happiness.” She helps people in a way that seems patronizing. Sydney’s ex-husband Nat (Warren David Keith) says she has an “It Takes a Village” mentality.
Things do fall apart in The First Grade, which imports lessons of elementary school into the adult world. The sets, designed by Nina Ball, create two parallel worlds for Sydney to occupy, both decidedly first-gradey. The classroom has a desk with an apple, a blackboard, and a mug filled with pens. Posters on the walls convey cryptic first-grade credos. Sydney’s home is similarly precise and geometric with its refrigerator magnets, baby-blue cupboards, and potted cacti. The walls are plastered with kids’ drawings and colored Post-Its.
But Sydney’s ability to hold court fails the moment she leaves school. At home she’s faced with Nat, her cranky daughter Angie (Rebecca Schweitzer), and, on occasion, Nat’s new Republican girlfriend (never shown). Nat and Sydney still live together as a matter of convenience, and Angie moved back in to escape the clutches of a bad marriage. Their home is dysfunctional in a way that rings true to modern middle-class families — particularly those where classroom rules have never been effectively enforced. Angie has a potty mouth and a horrible case of only-child syndrome. She deals with her unwanted three-year-old, Ethan, by doping him with Ritalin. Nat dodders around the house clinking a glass of Johnny Walker Black and describing himself as “a middle-aged bag of death and shit.” Sydney isn’t the world’s most sympathetic character, either, and it’s hard to tell whether to pity or scorn her for this state of affairs. At a certain point, you begin to wish corporal punishment would come back in style, not just for children.
Into this inferno steps Mora Lopez (Tina Sanchez), a young physical therapist with marital problems of her own. Sydney and Mora form a weird maternal bond that’s strained by cultural differences, Sydney’s pushiness, and Mora’s inability to tell the truth. Still, their first encounter sets the play in motion. Theoretically, Sanchez is the proper foil for Angie. They’re roughly the same age and separated from their husbands. Both resent their children. Both exude failed potential. And yet, they’re also utterly different. Mora is under-privileged and nurturing; Angie is a spoiled bitch.
Angie is more interesting, and her relationship with Sydney is far more believable. In one of their dialogues Sydney remembers Angie as a little girl, throwing tantrums in the grocery store while her mother calmly walked away. It’s easy to imagine. In contrast, Sydney and Mora seem tense and uncomfortable from the moment they meet. Sanchez makes her character seem just delicate enough to justify Sydney’s fascination with her. They shift on a dime, with Sydney transforming from patient to protector while Mora crumples. It’s a bit jarring and requires a little suspension of disbelief — especially when Sydney hands out her address and phone number, with instructions to call any time.
Such random acts of kindness precipitate the climactic battle on Nat and Sydney’s lawn, which takes place with Angie watching through a window. It’s the only scene that doesn’t involve a big piece of furniture at center stage, and the characters circle each other like boxers in a ring. At this point, the limitations of Sydney’s school marm attitude become apparent. Many adults act like first graders, but they won’t all bend to a teacher’s will.