Review: “Eureka Day” at Syracuse Stage needles an unsolvable debate

Review: "Eureka Day" takes on the exhaustive issue of vaccines

Jonathan Spector's overlong play takes on the exhaustive issue of vaccines with humor and empathy.
Published: October 18, 2021
Photo of actors in the play Eureka Day at Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, NY
Actors Jason O'Connell, Laura Yumi Snell, Stephanie Weeks, Drew Hirshfield, and LeeAnne Hutchison in "Eureka Day" at Syracuse Stage.

Eureka Day wasn’t written in 2020, but you’d be forgiven if you thought it was. Eureka Day is a fictional take on the recent vaccine debate amongst parents regarding their children – and the larger community. Playwright Jonathan Spector began writing it in 2016.

With each day this play is performed, the themes presented grow more polarized, and are infused with Spector’s comedic touch. This painfully pertinent comedy provides an entertaining view on both sides of a heated debate, but needs to trim the fat.

It’s been 18 months since an audience attended a live performance at Syracuse Stage, and Spector’s Nostradamus-approved comedy will kick off this 2021-2022 season. Eureka Day, directed by Robert Hupp, feels like a statement on behalf of the artistic team. It follows a group of five, gluten-free parents, during the midst of a mumps outbreak at a Berkeley, CA elementary school. Eureka Day premiered at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, as the theatre commissioned the work in 2018.

In an effort to stay “value neutral,” as LeeAnne Hutchinson’s uptight character Suzanne calls it, the parents must decide what to do about the outbreak, while hearing every voice (they don’t) and offending no one (they do). Dynamics between the parents screeches and swells. Don, played by a hilarious Jason O’Connell, tries to keep the peace. But Meiko, played by Laura Yumi Snell, won’t talk and Carina, played by Stephanie Weeks, is repeatedly shut out. A particular scene depicts a meeting between the five main characters while a virtual chat of concerned parents unfurls behind them. What begins as civil discourse in the chat, transforms into a raging cesspool of accusations, all while the five protagonists argue amongst themselves. It’s chaotic and all too real. The audience’s uproarious laughter even drowned out the dialogue. The actors kept moving right through it.

Photo of actors in the play Eureka Day at Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, NY
Actors LeeAnne Hutchison, Jason O'Connell, Stephanie Weeks, and Laura Yumi Snell in "Eureka Day" at Syracuse Stage.

The brightly colored set by Junghyun Georgia Lee feels wonderfully cold and artificial, instead of warm and friendly. It pushes the feeling that these meetings are more about the parents than they are about the students. Costumes, also by Lee, are punchy and stylish; furthering the characters’ personalities and revealing subtle transformations.

In a divisive time, scabrous debates need understanding. Spector gives his unlikable characters a chance to speak, and coaxes empathy from the audience. By the end, the interactions between characters promotes the message that everyone has their reasons, and deserve to be heard.

This award-winning work chills with its relevancy. The pacing in the first act slugs and leaves multiple story threads hanging in the wind. At a two-hour, two-act run time, Eureka Day could execute its ideas in half the time with the same amount of impact. Though the stakes are objectively high for the parents, they failed to feel urgent. Amongst the themes of community, choices, unresolved fear, judgement, and bias, the spark in the scenes wavers but is never extinguished. People are exhausted by the debate over vaccines, but Eureka Day buoys the issue with empathy and humor.