Becoming Julia Morgan

Rated 4.0

Julia Morgan built dreams—California dreams. This pioneering woman architect designed the remarkable, irrepressible visions of William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon, as well as more than 800 different projects throughout the state. But her most impressive and most enigmatic accomplishment was her own life.

Most of Morgan’s works are found in Northern California, including buildings on the UC Berkeley campus, schools, churches and her most famous: Hearst Castle, Asilomar Conference Grounds and San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. Morgan’s designs in Sacramento include a California State University, Sacramento, reception house and the office of the California secretary of state.

The story of California’s first licensed woman architect is a perfect fit for California Stage, a theater devoted to producing new works by Californians about the Golden State. The small theater company co-commissioned playwright Belinda Taylor to dramatize the story of Morgan’s life. The challenge? Morgan was revealing in her work but built a concrete wall around her private life.

Taylor used this character trait as a clever device in her impressive Becoming Julia Morgan, now playing at California Stage. She introduces us to Charlie Mae, the real-life reporter who never published his biography of Morgan because she wouldn’t permit private moments. So, we get Mae’s chronological story of Morgan: battling sexism in the early 1900s, her education in Europe, her unique 25-year relationship with Hearst and her design sensibilities. We also witness Mae’s frustrating attempts to peek into the architect’s interior.

Janis Stevens is remarkable as Morgan. It’s a subtle performance that captures this no-nonsense woman with small, constrained gestures and expressions. And Peter Playdon, with his portrayals of Mae and of Morgan’s emotionally fragile brother, is her equal.

The script, which was being rewritten and workshopped until opening night, is a fascinating character portrait told in tight and compelling, imaginative scenes. The show’s second half needs major tightening, but the costumes are gorgeous, and the set is innovative. The giant cobalt-blue drafting plans on walls, floor and ceiling allow the audience to physically enter Morgan’s designs but, alas, not her tightly controlled emotional interior.