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Theater Review: The History Boys

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I can still recall the vast expanse of empty seats at the South Pointe High School auditorium when I saw my first Edge Theatre production, Geography Club, last January. When I looked in on the group again down in Rock Hill this past fall, they had brilliantly solved the wide open spaces problem by bringing the audience up onstage with the actors for Bare: A Pop Opera -- achieving an off-Broadway ambiance in a high school auditorium!

Last week, the same formula was applied to Edge's latest effort, Alan Bennett's The History Boys, tipping the pendulum slightly in the opposite direction. For it was possible to perceive the thrust-stage configuration, with Ben Pierce's ample classroom set design, as too large for the audience enclosing it. Maybe that impression wouldn't have assailed me if that reduced seating onstage with the Edge players were sold somewhere close to capacity.

The lackluster turnout was a puzzler. Here was the Tony Award- winning Best Play of 2006 in its area premiere -- in the wake of Edge's fine Laramie Project: 10 Years Later at Story Slam last October, the robust attendance for Bare in December, and the Columbinus phenomenon at Duke Playhouse two weeks after that. Was Facebook broken?

Directed by Susan L.D. Smith, History Boys was probably the stoutest challenge Edge has tackled so far. On Broadway, you simply import the lads needed to portray the classmates at a northern British high school in the 1980s. In Rock Hill, you need to find eight locals who can get the accent and enunciate it intelligibly in rapid-fire free-for-all dialogues. Guiding the students, fighting for their success and their souls, are three teachers and a stern, befuddled headmaster.

Too nuanced to be called a battle, History Boys still boils down to a struggle between two teachers of different generations with different philosophies about what education is for and what teachers should achieve. Irwin is the modern-thinking efficiency man that Felix, the results-oriented headmaster, wishes to wedge between his honors students and the oddball Hector. For Irwin and Felix, it's all about test scores, but for Hector, who enters in his motorcycle helmet and teaches history in a wildly dilatory fashion, it's all about instilling his reverence for literature, his intoxication with poetic language, with a side order of worship for W.H. Auden -- and a predilection toward his sexual orientation.

Both Irwin and Felix share that gay predilection, as it turns out, but not towards each other. Even though he comes to question it, Hector is unyielding in his old-fashioned approach to teaching, blissfully -- or perhaps heroically -- unaware that his indiscretions have made his position vulnerable at the school. As our occasional narrator, it is clear that Irwin has come to understand the benefits of Hector's freestyle pedagogy -- and equally clear that he has incorporated none of it in his philosophy or methodology.

Anyone who has seen Aven Stephenson over the years, dating back to his heroic leads at Charlotte Shakespeare Company and Charlotte Rep, will have some idea of his capabilities. But you will need to stretch those ideas unless you've seen him as Hector. Not only did he look a crusty 60 years old, he had the physicality down so thoroughly that it was hard to believe he is really considerably younger. And of course, those Shakespearean outings were put to fine use in Stephenson's faultless accent.

Group founder Jimmy Chrismon was hardly less outstanding as Irwin, lowering his voice in a finely authoritative BBC manner and espousing his views in consistently urbane fashion. As much as Stephensen embraced the boys, Chrismon held them at an abstract, sterile, and disdainful distance, with a nicely gauged jealousy and resentment towards Irwin.

Among those students, I'll give my edge to Brandon DiMatteo as Dakin the bold ringleader and Philip Calabro as Posner, the shy Jew. Yet I'm unsure whether I preferred them over their classmates because their performances were superior or because their larger roles afforded more time for me to decipher their accents. All were beautifully directed by Smith. Part of the reason the classroom remained dynamic was Smith's blocking, but the energy of the actors counted for even more.

The supporting adults were solid enough. Kerri Marks as Mrs. Lintoff acquitted herself well enough for me to look forward to seeing her on this side of the border. Brian O'Shea appeared to be a comparative neophyte as the Headmaster, not always knowing what to do with his hands but faultless with his line readings.

No, it wasn't always jolly. But History Boys was a damn good show.

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