By PAM HARBAUGH
The facts don’t add up to the truth nor do they insure success in life. That seductive current runs throughout Mad Cow Theatre’s engrossing production of Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys.”
The 2006 Tony Award winner for best play concerns an academic tug-of-war over the hearts and minds of a group of promising students at a boys school in northern England. In it, beloved teacher Hector uses an array of techniques to cajole the group of eight adolescents into thinking for themselves. He is not above letting the boys improvise a bawdy scene in French, nor re-enact melodramatic scenes from old Hollywood movies. He challenges them to recite obscure poetry while he pops them in the head with a paperback book to get them to think. His affection for them and they for him is clear.
He finds himself pitted against Irwin, a brilliant young teacher who has bedazzled the school’s headmaster with tales of higher education at Oxford. The headmaster decides it is Irwin who will hone the students into being admitted at Oxford or Cambridge. Of course, that’s the superficial take. Peel back that first layer and you find compelling character portraits and stories of human duality.
Philip Nolen paints a vivid, complex and oh-so-loving portrait of Hector. He regales the boys with his prowess one moment. Then at a quieter scene, subtly fights back the tears. We see Mr. Nolen so often in light-hearted fare, it’s a real treat to see him in a show that lets him strut his deeper, dramatic stuff.
Peter Travis rather emerges in his role of Irwin. His deliberate, steady pace brings a moment of heightened realism when Irwin reveals his own secret. When Mr. Travis debates with Mr. Nolen how to “teach” the Holocaust (one of Mr. Bennett’s most brilliant dialogues), his arguments are like the cool, easy parries of a skilled fencing expert.
Robin Proett Olsen is a theatrical dream as Mrs. Lintott, the tidy teacher known for teaching the facts. As the only on-stage female in the play, she is especially impassioned in her speech about women not having a place in history except to carry the pails of water.
Jeffrey Todd Parrott adroitly brings out the pathos of misfit Posner, lost in love over swaggering, sexy Daikin, brought to full bodied life by Robert Johnsten. Sean Michael Flynn is a low-keyed comic relief as hapless Rudge, a student athlete who seems sadly out of the running for Oxford or Cambridge. And Tommy Keesling hits the perfect pompous note for the Headmaster, the school administrator who can’t hold his own in Hector’s class.
Director Mark Edward Smith carves an artistic edge to this production with help by lighting designer John Hemphill. Mr. Smith also keeps it moving at a good, quick clip, so you have to pay attention to the dialogue, most of it spoken with accents of northern England. Big nods here to dialect coaches Gemma Victoria and Anne-Marie Colwell.
This acclaimed, award winning play does have one element to it that may make audiences wince. At the end of the first scene, Hector asks which boy would like a ride into town on his motorbike. None of them want to ride with him because they know a ride means a grope or two. Here’s what Mr. Bennett said about that in a New York Times interview:
“…there’s never any hope that he’ll get anywhere and that enables them to be quite lighthearted about it…I don’t subscribe to the notion that if somebody puts their hand on your knee it’s going to scar you for life. Partly because when I was a boy, that was expected almost. You just thought, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ ”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The History Boys” runs through Sept. 7 at Mad Cow Theatre, on the second floor at 54 West Church St., Orlando. It performs 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are .25 to .75. Call 407-297-8788 or visit. www.madcowtheatre.com.