Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Los Angeles LGBT Center
Through November 5
What can we do about the failure of public education in America’s inner cities? It’s not certain that a play — any play — can do little more than point out the problems, much less offer a solution. But Chicago playwright Ike Holter’s compelling drama is a ferocious Cri du Coeur, eloquently opines that we need to rearrange our priorities or face destruction.
Holter’s beautifully written piece crackles with energy and passion — it hearkens back to those early British plays by Harold Brenton and David Hare in the way it combines issues and politics with emotion and personality. The action mostly takes place in the teacher’s lounge at a beleaguered South Side Chicago public school. Directed by Deena Selenow, this intense production features an presentational style that feels both intimate and ferociously vivid. It carries you right along like a thrill ride, even when the subject matter is whether a local school will close down or not.
Ricky (Adam Silver), the idealistic, somewhat naive newly appointed vice-principal at a Chicago public school, learns that the failing rundown facility is simply going to be closed down, further destroying the impoverished community it anchors. He breaks the bad news to hardboiled, super-cynical senior teacher Pam (Jane Macfie), who has devoted 22 years of her life to keeping the school going, however inadequately. Pam doesn’t shoot the messenger — but she does kill herself.
The school, understandably, is left reeling, and most of the other teachers are too beaten down and jaded to do much more than count the days till the bulldozers arrive at the school gate. However, Pam’s act galvanizes Ricky into searching for innovative ways to save his school — and his passionate enthusiasm soon wins over even the most hardened of his opponents, from tough, cynical instructor Sadie (LaNisa Renee Frederick) to hot-tempered, special ed teacher Jania (Maria Romero). Only tired, fed up Principal Arnold (Darrett Sanders), who knows the way of the world, is hesitant to support Ricky’s campaign, which soon recruits many students, including a teen computer whiz (Luke Tennie), who might just save the day.
Holter’s dialogue seethes with wit and rage, and the atmosphere feels genuine, clever, and organic. And, though it is not really something you’d expect someone to note in a theater review, Holter demonstrates an ear for the goings-on in a world whose rules and boundaries are fixed by sometimes irrational and destructive government policy. The writing artfully captures that sense of a workplace where people may not really like each other that much, but are still a team, cohering as “us” against a rest-of-the-world “them.” It is a mood that is engrossingly familiar to anyone who has worked in a Civil Service-like environment, and its conjuring is due in no small part due to Selenow’s staging, which intriguingly encourages a slight sense of claustrophobia.
Silver delivers a deftly toned performance that gradually shifts from complacent administrator to hardened protestor: he excels in playing a character whom anyone sensible would love to have a drink with after work. The play’s opening scene, between intimidating veteran teacher Pam and the totally cowed Ricky is tremendous — in fact, we wish that McVie’s vivid turn as the school’s essential spirit appeared more often throughout the play, as she towers in every scene she’s in. As the tired, embittered principal, his baleful blustering masking layers of textured sadness, Sanders creates a beautifully tragic figure as well. Frederick’s unexpectedly bitter Sadie and Romero’s frenetic Jania are also wonderful.
The play itself may suffer from a slight surfeit of juvenile idealism, but that impression is ultimately tempered by its context, as the characters (and we) learn that the nature of protest often requires more sacrifice than the protesters at first realize.
Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through November 5. 323-860-7300 or www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.