You might not realize you wanted it until you've got it, but it's greatly pleasing to see Caroline Neff play one of the adults in the room for once. The compelling actress, with her petite stature, round face and distinctive mane of thick blond curls, is so often onstage as a youngster: The damaged teenager in A Brief History of Helen of Troy at Steep; the precocious, responsible daughter in Griffin Theatre's Port; the sensitive youngest sib Irina in Tracy Letts's adaptation of Three Sisters at Steppenwolf. So it's refreshing to see her in John Donnelly's 2011 drama as an authority figure—though one whose authority over her teenage charges has results that are, as Neff's Zoe puts it, "unconscionable."
Zoe is a teacher in training in the British nowhere town of Tilbury, who's placed in charge of a class of four unruly 15-year-olds the school system can't seem to tame but doesn't want to expel for fear of losing funding. "So I'm babysitting," she says to her unctuous principal (Jim Poole) and dashing cad of a mentor (Michael Salinas). She eventually starts to gain the trust of her students, who include Carolyn Braver as a hilariously vacuous mean girl, Sarai Rodriguez as a prudish teen and Clancy McCartney, spot-on as a shit-stirring chav. But when the quietest of the quartet (Jerry MacKinnon Jr.) takes too much of a liking to Zoe, things spin out of control.
It seems Donnelly, himself a former teacher in the U.K., aims to expose the harsh truths of a failing and flailing school system. Yet there's a fine line between gimlet-eyed examination and sensationalism; Donnelly's soapy plotting crosses it. Still, fine performances in Jonathan Berry's smartly staged production, particularly and unsurprisingly Neff's, make The Knowledge worth picking up.