“To Master the Art” Blends French Food, U.S. Politics, & Love—at CCCT
Brown & Frew Revive the Tale of Julia Child in France
by Patricia L. Morin
“To Master the Art” is an enjoyable mix of French history, American intrigue, and humorous cooking lessons. Julia and Paul’s loving marriage endures and inspires us, as their two separate worlds find a place in each other.
After WWII, Julia McWilliams, spunky daughter of a wealthy Republican from Pasadena, is working for U.S. Intelligence in Ceylon, when she falls in love with Paul Child, another intelligence officer. After they marry, the U.S. sends Paul from the Far East to work in France.
Tenacious Julia (Maria Mikheyenko) is lost—she doesn’t speak French and has no work. Patient Paul (Michael Sally) takes her to a wonderful French restaurant where she inhales new, delicate scents and tastes that excite her palate.
Renewed and determined, Julia decides to become a cook! She maneuvers into a cooking class at the Cordon Bleu—along with US soldiers on the G.I. Bill. Eager war veterans, struggling Laszlo Horner and amiable Jeremy Cole, stand for the veterans getting free education.
In Act One, their charming Paris story has little conflict—I found myself drifting. William Brown and Doug Frew’s script mirrors the popular movie Julie and Julia.
While Mikheyenko’s role feels underdeveloped in the script, she makes the most of the humorous moments. We laugh as Julia learns to make actual scrambled eggs onstage. And we smile as she mingles with the Vegetable Lady in the market, learning to appreciate the subtleties of French life.
Julia’s stern father (stalwart Harrison Alter) writes tyrannical letters trying to get her to leave Paris and her “liberal” ways. He doesn’t much like Paul, either.
Finally, she stumbles on the project for a 700-page cookbook with friend and collaborator Simca (confident Anne Yumi Kobori). Julia proclaims, “I’m just taking a few centuries of French culinary tradition and translating it into something they can understand in Cincinnati.” She becomes a veritable Ambassador of Tasting!
But Paul leads a different life. While Julia promotes French cooking to Americans, he must promote America to the disinterested French. Paul’s frustrations with his U.S. government bosses and the McCarthy“Red Scare” back home explode at an exciting dinner for embassy friends.
Paul Child expresses frustration and fear as he is assailed by both the FBI and Julia’s earful of recipes. As Paul, Sally swells with endearing sentiments and adoration for Julia. Yet, we feel his suppressed desire to be heard as he acquiesces to Julia’s needs.
Their conflicts finally clash.
With fine direction from Marilyn Langbehn, we get to see Julia’s friends reading their letters from the wings. The ensemble of talented actors plays many roles with aplomb.
Julia deals with misogynistic mentors and sexist publishers for her book project. Thanks to two powerful supporters back home, Judith Jones (dynamic Kelly Rinehart) and Avis de Voto (terrific Trish Tillman), Julia keeps at it, despite setbacks. In the 50s, men and women lived on different planets. But Julia broke the barriers and made a revolution in cooking and French-U.S. relations.
Congrats to Madeline Berger for her spot-on period costumes and to Calli Carvajal for the wig designs. CCCT has spread a bounty of French delights for us to taste.
“To Master the Art” by William Brown & Doug Frew, directed by Marilyn Langbehn, at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, El Cerrito, California. Info: CCCT.org – to May 21, 2023.
Cast: Harrison Alter, Jeremy Cole, Laszlo Horner, Anne Yumi Kobori, Maria Mikheyenko, Kelly Rinehart, and Trish Tillman.
Banner photo: Maria Mikheyenko and Michael Sally. Photos: Ben Krantz