Stage Left Theatre and Theatre Seven of Chicago at Theater Wit. By Joe Zarrow. Directed by Scott Bishop. With Cassy Sanders, McKenzie Chinn, Elana Elyce, Barbara Roeder Harris, Arya Daire. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Kay is a young white woman who’s jumped into teaching via an accelerated certification program for “career changers.” When she arrives in the English Lit office for her first day of inservice at Chinua Achebe High School Academy somewhere on Chicago’s South Side, one of her new colleagues, eyeing her with a mixture of suspicion and amusement, asks where she’s from.
“Oh, I have a studio in Logan Square,” Kay says. But her inquisitor didn’t ask where she lives—the question was where she’s from, and in Kay’s case, the answer is Naperville.
In many depictions of inner-city educators, this early exchange would appear to mark Kay as one of two types: either the Michelle Pfeiffer White Lady Savior, here to help Achebe’s underperforming students and burned-out teachers reignite their spark, or the naïve suburban mark, who shows up to school only to get schooled on the harsh truths of teaching.
Thankfully, playwright Joe Zarrow’s bracing new comedy respects the system and the audience too much to take any such easy route. Zarrow, who was himself an English teacher for several years, including a four-year stint with Chicago Public Schools, populates the fictional Achebe English office with an array of types: Kay (Cassy Sanders), the newbie; Denise (Barbara Roeder Harris), the vet in her last year before retirement; Ola (Elana Elyce), the maybe too agreeable department head; and Shelley (McKenzie Chinn), the practical idealist.
All four chafe against the principal, Ms. Banerjee (Arya Daire), another corporate jumper who overindulges in jargon and sports metaphors and is seen as the face of whichever standardized, data-driven curriculum is being mandated from “downtown” this year.
But Zarrow’s too smart to allow any of his characters to come across as purely heroic or nefarious. They deal with the headaches of broken budgets and broken copiers, unruly students and indifferent parents, and the pressures of outside politics and far-off educational consultants, all while trying to do right by their students even as they clash over methods.
The intraoffice debates over educational philosophy get fiery (and provoked some amens in the audience at the preview performance I attended), but to the great credit of the playwright, director Scott Bishop and a first-class cast, the arguments always feel rooted in character, and Zarrow coats them thick with gallows humor.
Chinn is particularly compelling in her righteous indignation that the “Cornell Review curriculum”—the latest cookie-cutter fad in a fat binder, which Banerjee refers to as “a franchise player”—compels her to teach Huck Finn to a student body that’s 95 percent African-American. Sanders, too, skillfully conveys the way Kay’s rulebook dependency wears away as she acclimates to every day’s compromises.
It’s the bond that develops between Shelley and Kay in their desire to make their lessons relevant to their kids’ lives, even if it means putting their principles above their principal, that propels the first act, and it’s the break between them that drives the conflict in the second. The moment of Kay’s change of heart is a bit underwritten—one of the few components here that feels more like a storytelling necessity than an organic act. But this clear-eyed glimpse into the teachers’ lounge makes hearty laughs part of an all too relevant lesson plan.