Education gets schooled in ‘History;’ ‘Menagerie’ is, well, ‘Menagerie’
When George Santayana said those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it, he was speaking philosophically, not reflecting on the realities of modern education. But the teens in "The History Boys," set in a British boys’ school in the 1980s, are concerned with practicalities: They have to do well on their university entrance exams or they’ll kiss their futures goodbye. (They might have to serve out their academic careers in a second-tier college — maybe even Leeds! Horrors!)
Hector (Bradley Campbell), the boys’ English prof, doesn’t much care about "A levels" and the grasping desperation for "Ox-Bridge" immortality; he just wants to inspire his students to appreciate knowledge. Forget the curriculum; he wants them to have fun and learn — French, poetry, old films, sex — it’s all the same. It’s called a liberal arts education.
Problem is, his school’s headmaster (Rick Espaillat) craves academic success more than happy, well-rounded students. He taps a young instructor, Irwin (David Plunkett) to "teach to the test:" tricks about how to impress admissions examiners, honesty and accuracy aside.
In old-school parlance, Irwin and Hector are engaged in a contest for the souls of their students, but Alan Bennett’s play, getting a smashing production now from Uptown Players, is cagier than that. It’s not a melodramatic battle but a more realistic tango, where both have their strong points and both their weaknesses — of ideas and morals.
Irwin isn’t what he seems, and Hector… well, he has a habit of fondling the boys. Who is more corrupt? And how much lack of corruption can we reasonably expect?
"The History Boys" isn’t all that dark (there’s lots of humor, and a brightness to the tone and performances), but it is heavy: from culture wars to specters like "No Child Left Behind" to the simple challenges inherent in understanding the British system, it tasks the audience, in the best way imaginable. But the lack of simple answers lingers like a cloud. "The History Boys" demands that you think.
But it’s easy to feel it as well. Especially at the end of Act 1 and beginning of Act 2, as Hector copes with how his world is crumbling around him, Campbell’s passion-turned-dread is simply sublime. He casts a spell with words that affects the audience as it would his students.
The senior cast members, also including Wendy Welch, do terrific work, but the revelations here are the boys — to a one, ideally cast and affecting. As Dakin, Brett Thiele possesses the loose sexual morality of a player. But the real standout is Alex Ross as Scripps, whose perfect Northern England accent puts everyone else to shame. It’s his story as much as anyone else’s, and by the force of his presence, he somehow makes it ours, too.
Tom Wingfield, the narrator and autobiographical stand-in of Tennessee Williams’ breakthrough play "The Glass Menagerie," spends a lot of time dancing around what he does when he leaves the shabby apartment he shares with his mom and sis. But we know what he was up to: Trawling the shadowy alleys and gay clubs of St. Louis, having anonymous sex with men.
Of course, Williams never says that, but he does say it is a memory play, one shaped by emotions and prejudices. You can’t believe everything you hear and see, and what did actually happen might not be for the reasons you’re told. It’s theater at its most subjective, presentational but untrustworthy.
But it’s also a gem of American drama, albeit one that clearly wears its author’s pain (and its poetic aspirations) a bit too visibly on its sleeve. The characters — only four appear onstage — are classics of theater: the brooding, self-pitying Tom (Dan Forsythe); the intense, smothering Amanda (Pamela Peadon); frail Laura (Jessica Wiggers); and Jim (Matt Moore), the gadabout "gentleman caller" who sets the plot in motion.
Its familiarity is a blessing and a curse. WaterTower Theatre’s current production boasts a knock-out raked set by Clare Floyd Devries; dramatically effective lighting from Jason Foster; and all the performances are solid, loyal representations. (The only real distraction lies in the terrible musical choices, which often recall the underscore of soft-core Koo Stark porn from the ’70s.)
But for all its good, it’s still just "The Glass Menagerie," the play that, for 60 years, has been a staple of high schools and regional theaters — a dry run for Williams’ best work, "A Streetcar Named Desire." Which is not to insult the play, or this production, at all… at least not much.
Peadon’s interpretation of Amanda is more shrill than flamboyant, although when she emerges in a spectacular horror of a dress in Act 2, you sense acutely the grand self-deception of the character. Wiggers’ Laura is almost unbearably tender, while Forsythe focuses on Tom’s easy frustration — I’ve never wanted both of them to grow a pair so much.
But why pick at nits? Like a romantic comedy from a Hollywood studio or dance-music playing at the gym, "The Glass Menagerie" is what it is — a great piece of theater we’ve all seen before. If you haven’t, enjoy.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 10, 2009.