Theater & Performing Arts

The First Grade

When: Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. and Tuesdays, 7 p.m. Continues through Feb. 16 2010

It's always difficult to believe that first-grade teachers have a life outside the classroom, and Sydney does nothing to undermine the stereotype. Played by Julia Brothers in Joel Drake Johnson's new drama (directed by Tom Ross at AuroraTheatre), Sydney is a dowdy, pixie-faced matron with a sweet, neurotic personality. She attempts to apply classroom management skills to all facets of life, from her alcoholic ex-husband, Nat (Warren David Keith), to her bitchy daughter, Angie (Rebecca Schweitzer). Such efforts create a lot of dysfunctional family spats, where Sydney is usually the hapless victim. Still, she maintains equipoise, dispensing vocabulary words and doling out cookies for good behavior. The writing is what anchors The First Grade, even though Johnson's efforts to string in multiple themes (cultural disconnect, alienation, Ritalin, menopause, mother/daughter relationships) make the plot get messy. Brothers manhandles her role like no other. She's the type of actress who can walk out between scenes and look utterly transformed -- like she took a shower in the space of two seconds. Set design by Nina Ball includes a revolving wall that turns Sydney's classroom into her suburban home. That sense of continuity is remarkable. Through February 25 at AuroraTheatre (2081 Addison St., Berkeley).

Rachel Swan

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