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In 'Eureka Day,' Tina Benko makes sure her anti-vaxxer character does not come across as a villain
The private Northern California school depicted in Jonathan Spector's timely dark comedy Eureka Day is so progressive that in the alphabet displayed on the library wall, "A" is for activist and "X" is for Malcolm. But this beacon of tolerance and diversity is brought to a standstill when families clash over whether to vaccinate their children during a mumps outbreak. In this Colt Coeur production directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, Tina Benko has the challenging task of playing outspoken anti-vaxxer Suzanne. The accomplished stage actress makes this mom vibrantly complicated and even sympathetic despite her controversial stance on the hot-button issue.
"It's easy to make assumptions about Suzanne without knowing her backstory, what kind of pain she's experienced," explains Benko who, despite her sympathy for the character, is clear that she's pro-vaccine. "You look at a lot of these characters and make a quick appraisal, and then as the show goes on you learn incrementally what they're all dealing with. When we find out the reasons why this woman chooses not to vaccinate, it's a little more difficult to dismiss her."
Although Benko may not be a household name, she's a favorite of stage directors who appreciate her mix of character actor versatility with leading lady charisma. She made her New York stage debut 20 years ago, though she spent the first decade as an understudy on Broadway while actually going on Off-Broadway, including appearances in two Ivo van Hove deconstructed classics (Little Foxes and Scenes from a Marriage), headlining an unconventional solo show about Jacqueline Kennedy (Jackie), playing an ethically challenged scientist (Informed Consent). In recent years, she's appeared in revivals of The Cherry Orchard and The Crucible on Broadway, while becoming a familiar face on TV, with notable recurring roles on TURN: Washington's Spies and Royally. Currently she's juggling performances of Eureka Day with rehearsals for Roundabout Theatre Company's upcoming Broadway revival of The Rose Tattoo while continuing to teach acting at Columbia University.
Benko's Suzanne isn't the only anti-vaxxer in Eureka Day, but her obstinance puts her in conflict with her fellow parents and executive committee members, who try to be in complete agreement about major decisions. In that way the play -- which had its world premiere last year at Berkeley, California's Aurora Theater -- feels like a metaphor for all the unwinnable arguments happening in our country at the moment, over vaccines and so much else.
"The play is about community," says Benko. "And in America right now, how do you have a sense of community when you have people from such disparate backgrounds? Even these people who fancy themselves quite woke and liberal and judgment-free, when it comes down to the health of their children, all that sort of goes out the window."
In addition to being provocative, Eureka Day is bitingly funny. Act I closes with the committee logging on to Facebook Live to discuss the mumps crisis with parents, whose comments are projected onto a classroom wall for the audience to read. As pro- and anti-vaxxers collide, the responses become increasingly antagonistic, similar to what many of us experience on our own social media feeds these days.
The actors' dialogue continues amid the online comments, but though they have a computer in front of them, they can't see the reactions. "I actually want to read the comments the audience is laughing at," Benko says. "That was a very tricky scene to rehearse without the computer elements while trying to keep focus with what's going on with the online crowd."
While Benko disagrees with Suzanne's stance, she understands her desire to be seen and heard in an increasingly polarized world. "Even in this interview, I just don't want to say the wrong thing," Benko says, adding that as a teacher, she's extremely mindful of her language. "I used to call students 'sir' or 'madam' when I was learning their names. I meant it as a term of respect, but that's contentious now because I don't want to use the wrong pronoun."
Eureka Day's playwright has also said he's pro-vaccine, and yet he makes sure Suzanne doesn't come off as a villain or a kook. Benko leans in to her complexity so successfully that she can sense the audience's response to her character evolve as the show goes on.
"Playing Suzanne, sometimes I feel the audience turn on me in moments," she says. "That's what's exciting to me -- when we come across these dangerous moments in the play where the mask comes off."
Diane Snyder writes about theatre for Time Out New York and The Telegraph. Follow her at @DianeLSnyder. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Tina Benko.
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