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Onstage in Berkeley: A wrenching and hilarious take on the childhood vaccine divide

Onstage in Berkeley: A wrenching and hilarious take on the childhood vaccine divide
Lisa Anne Porter, left, and Elizabeth Carter star in "Eureka Day," a new play by Jonathan Spector. (Courtesy of Aurora Theatre Company)

The charged debate over whether children should be vaccinated against infectious diseases waxes and wanes, but it never really goes away.

A few years ago, after a spate of measles and whooping cough outbreaks in California, it became apparent that the vogue against inoculations was imperiling the health of our kids.

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The state Legislature stepped in, enacting a law eliminating the "personal belief exemption" that allowed so many families to send unvaccinated kids to that teeming petri dish of germs we call school. Since then, immunization rates have risen, but there are many vaccine-skeptical parents who feel their families are being punished for the greater good.

Which brings us to "Eureka Day," a new play by Jonathan Spector, commissioned by the Aurora Theatre Company, about a precious private school in the Berkeley Hills that is ripped apart when a letter about a mumps outbreak arrives from county health department. A case has been diagnosed at Eureka Day School, and children with no documentation of immunity to mumps will have to be kept at home, under quarantine, until the risk of exposure passes.

Anyone who has had a child in a progressive private school, as I have, will recognize the Eureka Day gestalt, and why so many parents are thrown into a panic.

Eureka Day is a place where the budget is being eaten up converting bathrooms to "all gender," where someone has proposed adding "trans-racial adoptee" to the drop-down list of racial categories on the school application, and where the ensuing rift between pro-vaccine parents and anti-vaccine parents absolutely and hilariously demolishes the school's veneer of egalitarian civility.

This becomes most apparent during an ingenious scene in which the school executive committee meeting is streamed on Facebook Live.

Parents watching at home begin commenting on the meeting. Their rolling comments are projected above the stage, and their electronic conversation, taking place simultaneously with the meeting onstage, soon disintegrates into what many will recognize as a social media-enabled brawl:

Christian Burns: Remember that time I got crippled from polio? Oh, no wait. I didn't. Cause I got … VACCINATED.

Lena Birnbaum-Tullstein: Your complacency in the destruction of children's lives is disgusting.

Tyler Coppins: What do stupid people and dead people have in common? The dead people don't know they're dead either!

Pila Baum: Sorry but refusing to acknowledge vaccine injury is like the GERMANS circa 1944 claiming that they had no knowledge of the concentration camps.

Tyler Coppins: Ding ding ding! We have a winner! First Nazi reference!

Eventually, the head of school slams down the cover of his laptop, bringing the disastrous meeting to an unceremonious end.

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As you might imagine, the play also reflects the larger political moment, where scientific truths are under assault, faith in institutions is being undermined for political ends, and describing the White House press secretary's "smoky eye" makeup is perceived as a partisan insult.

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I wondered what prompted Spector, 38, to take on this particular topic, which remains as explosive now as it has ever been, despite California's stricter law.

"The initial spark was a conversation I had with someone who was well-educated and smart, and you would assume you would agree on about most things," he told me in a little café next to the Aurora Theatre on Wednesday afternoon. "And then you discover this thing where you live in a parallel reality from them. Also, unlike gun control, or abortion or climate change, beliefs around vaccines don't track closely with political beliefs."

At the height of the debate over the new law in the spring of 2015, I spent an afternoon in Santa Cruz with a group of college-educated, politically active mothers who oppose vaccines to varying degrees. We agreed on many things, not least of which was the profound love we felt for our children. But we could find no common ground about the critical role of vaccines in a healthy society.

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After the personal exemption ban ended, California public health officials soon discovered that vaccine-skeptical parents began seeking out physicians for "medical exemptions" to the vaccine requirement.

In order to receive a medical exemption, a child is supposed to have either a compromised immune system (as happens during cancer treatment) or a previous serious allergic reaction to a vaccine.

Parental choice is not supposed to be a factor, but of course, it probably is, as medical exemptions to the law have tripled in the past two years. Some doctors have found themselves in hot water with the state medical board.

In "Eureka Day," a mother named Suzanne, played by Lisa Anne Porter, will not allow her children to be vaccinated. She describes in heart-wrenching detail how her firstborn died after her first immunization shots. Doctors insisted the cause of death was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But Suzanne knows for certain the death was caused by the vaccine. No one is in a position to contradict such a wounded mom.

Yet another Eureka Day mom, Carina, played by Elizabeth Carter, explains to Suzanne that many times, parents misremember the sequence of events that led to a child's injury or death, mistakenly blaming vaccines. Suzanne plaintively asks, "How do we do what's best for the whole community?" What she really means, though, is "How do we do what's best for me?"

In the context of vaccines and the importance of herd immunity, this question is richly, if inadvertently, ironic.

It can really only be answered one way: By making sure as many children as possible get their shots before coming to school.

In "Eureka Day," school officials discuss how to address a mumps outbreak as pro- and anti-vaccine parents argue on social media.
In "Eureka Day," school officials discuss how to address a mumps outbreak as pro- and anti-vaccine parents argue on social media. (Courtesy of Aurora Theatre Company)

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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