In the first act of his renowned play The History Boys, Alan Bennett throws down the gauntlet to any would-be critics. As his characters discuss the meaning of a great poem, one of them says, “In other words … ”
His companion responds, “If it is a work of art, there are no other words.”
Few would debate that Bennett’s masterful drama is indeed a work of art, and so it is appropriate that I left the San Pedro Playhouse’s production of The History Boys moved almost to tears and well beyond words. Perhaps it was the tone and setting of the final scene, but sometimes a respectful silence is the only way to acknowledge greatness. I can scarcely imagine what words could be added to more fully convey the themes that the Boys explore, but what brought forth my emotional response in that final scene was not what I heard but what I saw. The unspoken reaction of Tory Ramirez in the role of the gay Jewish student Posner, silent and still as memories radiate from his face, becomes an expression of everything Bennett is trying to say. It is a living history.
With that in mind, I can venture to describe the merits of director Tim Hedgepeth’s Cellar production of this Tony Award-winning play, which follows a group of prep-school boys in 1980s England as they approach the threshold of higher learning under the wings of three very different teachers. A professor of Drama at Trinity University, Hedgepeth’s experience working with young actors serves him well. We feel as though the members of the ensemble have come up through school together; there is a camaraderie that extends beyond the classroom walls. As co-set designer, Hedgepeth shares credit with Alfy Valdez for the simple but striking use of the Cellar Theater’s limited space. Their classroom is filled with images from history both modern and ancient, a mash-up of pop culture and antiquity that reflects the scope of Bennett’s work.
The History Boys
Through Sep 27
The Cellar at the San Pedro Playhouse
It is the teachers, however, who fill these hallowed halls with their philosophies. Bennett has written three diversely brilliant characters who embody disparate styles of teaching and schools of thought. The play may be called The History Boys, but the interactions between these two men and one woman of letters bring the stage to life — and life to the stage — in ways that the young people can only begin to grasp. In the role of Hector, Don Frame is as comfortable as the old leather jacket that symbolizes his free-wheeling methods both in and out of the classroom. The boys hang on his every word, and he imbues each one with the passionate familiarity of a man who has lived for the knowledge he imparts. The performance is most effective, however, when Hector is forced to constrain that passion by a turn of events both unforeseen and inevitable. Frame beautifully portrays Hector’s struggle to rediscover and be renewed by the pure joy of teaching.
Fresh from college both in role and real life, Mark McCarver anchors the ensemble as Irwin, the progressive new professor who challenges both Hector and the boys to rethink their idea of history. His mannered delivery may be better suited to larger stage productions, but he commands the contrast between Irwin’s mild personality and his forceful ideas. As with Hector, I believe him most when he is interacting with the other adults.
McCarver and Frame, together with Annella Keys as the delightfully dry-witted Mrs. Lintott, convey a wonderful sense of collegial fellowship that strikes the most authentic and attractive note. In the penultimate scene, when everything still hangs in the balance and no one’s future is certain, there is a moment when we realize that the outcome isn’t what truly matters. That, too, after all, will soon be history. Despite their differences, the three professors enjoy a conspiratorial, commiserating laugh at the folly of a world where so many can’t see the big picture. Neither this play nor these players lack that vision.
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