‘There is never an easy time to do something that has never been done before.” True enough.
In author-playwright Mary Spletter’s world premiere, Arches, Balance and Light, those words are more than just encouraging advice offered to a determined young pioneer; they form a kind of philosophical spine to a play that, in its own right, is attempting something impossible: telling the life story of the legendary Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed female architect.
Little is actually known of Morgan’s personal life, and that’s where the impossible comes in. She stands among history’s most secretive and private people. A playwright might stick to what few facts we do know, and end up writing a very short play, or she could allow herself to simply make up a lot of stuff instead. In her somewhat convoluted play-within-a-play-within-a-play, now running at Ross Valley Players, Spletter has done a bit of both, blending solid, historical reality with some juicy, fanciful “fan fiction,” resulting in an entertaining if shaggy-doggish fantasy romance.
After having designed 712 distinct buildings (including Hearst Castle), Julia Morgan’s somewhat prickly spirit (played by Ellen Brooks, excellent) appears alongside a chorus of ghosts to give a summary of her life, followed by the “memory” of a visit from an elegant young Parisian named Marguerite (Anatasia Bonaccorso, all watchful intensity), who is intent on determining whether or not Julia is her mother. In response, Julia, aided by the spirits, describes her days as a young student in Paris in the late 1800s (her younger self played with plucky charm, and considerable guts, by Zoe Swenson Graham, who stepped into the role just three days before opening).
Initially denied entrance to France’s prestigious architecture school, the École des Beaux-Arts, the determined Julia finds an enemy in the old-fashioned university director (John Simpson), but a friend and mentor in Victor (a charming Robin Schild), the amiable, middle-aged architecture teacher who sees Julia’s potential as a designer, and possibly a bit more. Revealing anything else would spoil the surprises.
The direction by Jay Manley is fine, making maximum sense of what could have been confusing, and the minimalist set works well. It is unlikely that any of what unfolds actually happened, of course. But around the edges of Spletter’s pleasantly quirky, occasionally sitcom-ish drama—basically a love story wrapped in a mystery disguised as a memory—the writer’s obvious admiration for Julia Morgan’s remarkable legacy is brought to vivid life.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★½