“All knowledge is precious, whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” Mull over that one; it serves as a central role in The History Boys, a divine play penned by Alan Bennett. Available Light Theatre’s production offers little spectacle, but simply tells a story so rich with raw nuggets of beauty and truth or non-truths—it doesn’t really matter, as we learn—that one leaves the space contemplating the intricacies of life, art, and what-ifs.
The play tells the tale of a group of seniors at Cutlers’ Grammar School, Sheffield, a boy’s prep school in England. Caught in the tight spot between hormones and dreams, the Headmaster’s goals, and their teachers’ desires for them, the play explains their year leading up to college placement. As a class, they circle between three teachers: Mrs. Lintott, the practical, female history teacher; Hector, the grayed and passionate language arts teacher; and Irwin, the fresh history teacher brought in to teach the boys critical thinking and to groom them for the university.
All eight boys, or men really, who play the pupils create a fantastic whole. Each scene builds upon the frivolity of the last, painting an enduring portrait of camaraderie and purest youth reminiscent of high school days. Dan Burleson as the comedic and snarky Timms and Jordan Fehr as the handsome, alpha Dakin stand out among the pack with exemplary performances. The octet form a beautifully stunning a capella group twice during the show, brilliantly influenced by music director Pam Welsh-Huggins. David Glover as the quieter, only lonely, homosexual Jewish student Posner, graces us with his gorgeous voice in several solo songs. Glover enchants with “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” where we glimpse a precious, raw portion of Posner’s soul.
John Kuhn nicely plays the grandfatherly, eccentric teacher, Hector, mimicking the boys’ playfulness while portraying his angst, though a bit forced. Joe Dallaqua counters him expertly as the young, hip teacher who truly challenges the boys. Dallaqua’s command of the stage and the classroom leave the audience hanging to his every word hoping we too can sit in on his class. As a whole, the chemistry among the cast proves quite powerful, especially in smaller scenes, but making all of the play a fair ensemble piece. The energy between Dallaqua and Fehr leave such important silences in the air that time almost stands still.
Being a very British play, The History Boys contains loads of wit and intelligence, and many references risk sailing over the predominantly Midwestern American audience’s heads. This is not a big issue as the story holds its own ground, regardless of each reference. However, the random spurts of direct address by a slew of characters, though not all of them, and not any of them consistently, aid in the confusion of the show. Additionally, the attempted fluidity in motion and staging by director Drew Eberly often feels like the actors are playing a game of musical chairs on stage, particularly at the top of the second act. This constant chaos of chair placement only slows the show down, causing it to drag at certain moments. At two and a half hours, it runs a bit long, despite the intermission.
The design elements of lighting, costume, and sound facilitate the play, serving only as a simple background for a highly complex story. I felt mildly disappointed, after experiencing the beginning of the show, where we see Irwin, alone on stage and in the present day, when suddenly the world travels back in time with the swelling of music and smooth shift of lights to the history boys in their classroom with Hector. This provides almost a cinematic feel, but that design aesthetic never repeats itself in the play. More integrative lighting and sound like that may have alleviated some of the pacing issues.
The History Boys contains copious amounts of content, themes, lessons, and quotes. It is a tricky beast. Despite the downsides of this production, Available Light puts on a compelling show.
When we accept the absurd world of the play, where sexual perversity remains the norm and boundaries are often blurred, we can fully question the many nuances Alan Bennett sprinkles throughout the piece. As I write this, I wonder, as I do from time to time, about the absolute value of art within our society. Further, while I believe, at least for me, that it does allow people to think for themselves, I question whether society truly values that skill—thinking for oneself. Art and critical thinking, two key players in The History Boys, weave a fine tale with this talented cast.
See the show with a friend or two and prepare for a long night of discussion, perhaps with critical thinking. The History Boys plays until Jan. 19, at Madlab, 277 N. Third Street. Thurs-Sat. at 8 pm; Sun. at 2 pm. Pay what you want. More information can be found online at www.avltheatre.com.