Morgan, California’s first license female architect.
Why is that so impossible?
Well, though much is known of Morgan’s professional career and long list of accomplishments—including the design of Hearst Castle and over 700 others—almost nothing is known of Morgan’s real personal life. She stands amongst history’s most notoriously secretive and private people. It hasn’t stopped others from trying. A few years ago, playwright Belinda Taylor brought out her own attempt, the well-received “Becoming Julia Morgan,” which managed to stitch the bare facts of Morgan’s life into a captivating adventure tale, while avoiding speculation on its subject’s private life, loves and rumored secret scandals. Spletter takes a very different approach. In her somewhat convoluted play-within-a-play-within-a-play, now running at Ross Valley Players, Spletter has blended snippets of solid, historical reality with a kind of juicy, fanciful “fan fiction,” making up from whole cloth a series of possible explanations for Morgan’s deeply private demeanor, all of which results in an entertaining if somewhat shaggy-doggish fantasy romance that is rich with emotion, but absent the kind of ‘Wow! I-Never-Knew-That’ kick that comes from watching actual, fact-driven biography.
That said, what Spletter and director Joe Manley have created, with the contributions of a charming cast, is a delightfully well-constructed bit of theatrical misdirection, though perhaps saddled with a few too many bits of clichéd humor, as in the moment a young Julia Morgan loses her temper and angrily shouts that she never loses her temper. The rest of the script is too clever to deserve moments so hackneyed and silly. Also, and this may just be a matter of taste, I’d suggest the play is perhaps encumbered by one too many “framing devices.”
As the show begins, Julia Morgan’s somewhat prickly spirit—played by an excellent Ellen Brooks—appears on stage alongside a chorus of ghosts, addressing the audience with a quick summary of her life, followed by the “memory” of a visit from an elegant young Parisian named Marguerite, played with watchful intensity by Anastasia Bonaccorso. The visitor, we quickly learn, is intent on determining whether or not Julia is her mother. In response, Julia—aided by those spirits—describes her early 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 a prestigious French architecture school, the determined Julia finds an enemy in the old-fashioned University director played with austere harumphery by John Simpson), while finding a friend and mentor in Victor, the amiable middle-aged teacher who sees Julia’s potential as a designer, and possibly a bit more. Victor is played with openhearted charm by Robin Schild.
Revealing anything else that happens would spoil the surprises, of which there are many.
As already stated, it is unlikely that any of what unfolds actually happened, of course. But around the edges of Spletter’s pleasantly quirky 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, infectious life.
‘Arches, Balance and Light’ runs Thursday–Sunday through March 6 at Ross Valley Players.