There are many theatre companies in Wilmington that provide educational or children’s theatre components to their work, but few approach it in quite the way Penny Kohut of Bare Bones Productions does. Kohut is a born educator, so it really comes as no surprise that when she won the use of Big Dawg’s Cape Fear Playhouse for two weekends, she used the opportunity to produce a play about a teacher.
Though well regarded in the late 1960s, Bel Kaufman’s “Up the Down Staircase” doesn’t have the kind of name recognition now it once had. Kaufman (granddaughter of the great storyteller Sholem Aleichem) published the novel in 1964 to great success: a mulit-month run on the New York Times Bestseller’s list, a film adaptation in 1967 with Sandy Denis (of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” fame) and a stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel of Dramatic Publishing. It follows a young teacher in the 1960s through her first, tumultuous year at an inner-city school in New York.
Meet Kaufman’s doppelganger: Sylvia Barrett (Dori Schoonmaker). She is fresh from grad school, having done her thesis on Chaucer. It is unclear why exactly she took a job at an inner-city high school; is it the only one she could find? Did she want to teach? What ever has brought her here, it is the first day of the new term, and she is clearly unprepared for a classroom filled with energy, hormones and adolescent angst. The administration—represented by the faceless voice over the intercom of Dr. Clarke (Richard Benedict), and the very real presence of Mr. McHabe (Stuart Pike) and Miss Finch (Emily Graham)—definitely see the school as a battleground. They have an obsession—a borderline pathological one—with bureaucracy. Some of the other adults are a little harder to pin down: the handsome poet teaching English across the hall, Paul Barringer (Stephan Raeburn), and the school guidance counselor, Ella Friedenberg, (Laurene Perry). Thankfully, Barrett stumbled upon a wonderful mentor next door, the veteran teacher, Bea Schachter (Linsey McGrath).
The plot is predictable: Students are difficult, but the administration is worse, and Miss Barrett considers leaving for an easier option. Nevertheless, she discovers she’s making a difference and in the end decides to stay. We like to give praise to people who make those decisions; though, that doesn’t tend to translate legislature appropriating more resources for education.
There are several things striking about this show. First, this is a huge cast (28 performers!) to fit on the relatively small Big Dawg stage. Kohut uses this to her advantage as a director, and makes the audience an extension of the classroom. The chaos swirls around us, creating a sense of Miss Barrett’s overwhelming daily life.
Kohut uses space well. Despite having no scene changes, the constant pressure of the administration is felt: McHabe could burst in anytime, or Miss Finch could materialize from thin air. Neither of them are offering constructive assistance, they just constantly criticize. The stage is pretty bare except for the chalk board, and the teacher’s desk and chairs for the students, which serves to reinforce the point that this is an under-funded school. It is a bleak setting; yet the cast fill it with such joie de vivre I almost forgot just how bleak it really was and how bleak their futures really look.
Schoonmaker as Miss Barrett is a good choice: She has class, sophistication and just enough naiveté to really make her believable. It is quite convincing to watch her slowly fall for these wonderful yet challenging students. A couple of standouts really grab the audience’s attention, too.
Kyler Schoonmaker as the neglected Jose Rodriguez had the lady next to me openly sighing and expressing concern for him every time he came onstage.
Gracie Cole’s Alice Blake, the young romantic infatuated as much with the idea of love as handsome Mr. Barringer, is almost a ‘60s mod-girl version of the Lady of Shallot. She’s whimsical, drifting and withdrawn into her private world.
Theo Townsend plays the self-proclaimed class clown of Lou Martin with phenomenal geekiness. His antithesis, Harry A. Kagen (Nolan Heath), is the living image of Neil Kellerman from “Dirty Dancing”: suit, tie and far more self-assurance than substance.
But it is the resident bad boy, Joe Ferone (Daniel Stinson), who steals the young teacher’s heart. She is actually not supposed to be much older than these kids (as they remind her), and it is not impossible for her concern to be a little more motivated by the old story of wanting to save him from himself. Against all his better judgement, he finds himself accepting her encouragement and belief in him, and contemplates that there could be something more in the world. Schoonmaker and Stinson play it well, and balance the tension carefully. When the scale tips, the flood of relief they both feel is palpable.
The subtext of this show is that all these people and pieces somehow fit together to make a bizarre system work (in spite of itself). Together, they are greater than the sum of their parts. The performances underscore that point beautifully. Standouts aside, it wouldn’t work if they weren’t working well together; it would fall terribly flat. The cast’s energy and drive makes it come alive. Though we can guess the outcome 10 minutes into the show, the way Kohut and her cast invigorate it makes us want to hang in to see just how they are going to do it.
It’s hard to watch this piece and not be hit with the realization that a half-century later our education system has not advanced very much. Perhaps being reminded of how little progress we have made will stir us to work harder for real change.