When playwright Anthony Clarvoe stumbled upon birdwatchers in Central Park, he was struck by how these “nerds in the woods” (he’s one of them now) interacted with each other and the environment. “Something happens when part of you becomes disembodied,” he theorizes—when you’re focused on what you’re seeing through binoculars. “In a way your soul soars free, for better or for worse. And out come these extraordinary calls, like those of the birds.”
Now, in a new play called Our Practical Heaven, Clarvoe places these soulful calls in the mouths of six characters—three generations of women who gather to celebrate consecutive holidays at a beach house. A 2011 finalist in Aurora Theatre Company of Berkeley’s Global Age Project, the play runs through March 3.
Clarvoe has been scribbling ideas for more than two decades, beginning with his breakout work Pick Up Ax, a 1990 premiere at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre. And he’s been birdwatching, from the dunes of Massachusetts to a boat off California’s Farallon Islands. The women of Our Practical Heaven share his avocation, gabbing about bird sightings and environmental issues as their relationships—fraught, complex and fragile—unfold on multiple levels: When the younger women text each other with futuristically named “gizmos,” their snarky asides are projected overhead, “like a riff on the Chekhovian world,” suggests Aurora artistic director Tom Ross, “only taking place in our 21st century. It’s Wi-Fi in the cherry orchard.”
“I don’t think linearly when building a play,” muses Clarvoe, “and with this one I was especially grappling with the fact that it was not so much a single story as a collection of characters who spoke to me so strongly and—not to be too odd about it—wanted their stories told.”
Ross says Clarvoe’s delicate, airy script evokes a feeling of “open sky, a nearby ocean, birds on the wing.” As he explores social concerns and personal issues like illness and betrayal, what does the playwright most want to convey? “The sheer passion and ingenuity with which we try to make human connections,” he says, “in whatever ways are available to us.”