The English Teachers
Theatre Review by Wendy Guida
New York, April 28, 1999
The old adage says “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” There is, of course, the last part, about how “those who can’t teach, teach gym,” but I won’t get into that. In my experience, those who teach also “do”. So many teachers I know write, act, study, dance, are politically active. Edward Napier’s play The English Teachers is about teachers who DO. It is very much about their lives outside the classroom, where dreams are dreamed and plans are realized or scrapped. It is about compromise with honor.
The English Teachers is one of the most genuinely funny plays I have seen in years. Now, I enjoy having my guts wrenched out at the theatre as much as the next person, but there is something to be said for giving insight through laughter. Mr. Napier can be proud of having created strong female characters who are neither all good nor all bad, and who do not need to be destroyed in the process of working out his plot. There are no Blanche Duboises in this play, no cliched, fragile symbols of southern womanhood, but there is passion, intelligence and humor in the story of three generations of women in West Virginia.
The year is 1960. Polly Walker, an English teacher who is regularly fired from schools for teaching such radical writers as Allen Ginsberg, dreams of acting on Broadway. Instead, she plays Sheridan Whiteside in her community theatre production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, until a family confrontation spurs her to give her dream a try. She is played by Alma Cuervo, the actress who originated the role of Ida Strauss in Broadway’s Titanic. Ms. Cuervo conveys a range of emotions with such ease, and works magic with the accents the part requires. Kudos to the dialect coach, Sara Felder, for the effective and meaningful use of accents in the play.
Polly’s sister Vic is also an English teacher, but one who has always played life by the rules; she too pursues a dream, by campaigning for a seat on the State House of Delegates. Vic is an ethical woman who learns that in political campaigns sometimes the end justifies the means. As portrayed by Pat Nesbit, Vic is tough and imperfect, but still earns the audience’s respect.
Amy Whitehouse, an actress barely out of high school herself, portrays Vic’s daughter Libby to perfection, capturing in the balance the innocence and vengefulness of a high school girl. She is by turns hilarious, frightening and pitiable as she tries to understand her place in the world by watching and learning from the women around her. Some of my favorite scenes are between her and her mother’s friend/campaign manager, Ruthie, played by Ruth Williamson. Ruthie advises her that she will never get anywhere till she learns “how to work a man.” Ms. Williamson plays this role to the hilt, turning on and off the charm with panache. Hers is one of the strongest and funniest female roles I have ever seen.
Where The English Teachers succeeds best is in avoiding stereotype. When Bobby Preston, a young, virile young man enters the scene, we may think we can predict the play’s ending, but we are wrong. Michael Hall’s Bobby is played against type. He is sexy, yes, but also savvy and, at his core, honorable.
Robert LuPone’s staging makes use of an interesting set in MCC’s black box theatre. His direction allows for a pace which makes the most of Mr. Napier’s wise and funny script. This play is about ethics: sexual, political, educational. What a delight to see such meaty roles for talented actors.
The English Teachers, written by Edward Napier. Directed by Robert LuPone. Scenic design by Rob Odorosio. Costume design by Juliet Polcsa. Lighting design by Jon Luton. Sound Design by Bruce Ellman. Dialect Coaching by Sara Felder. Starring Amy Whitehouse, Pat Nesbit, Ruth Williamson, Alma Cuervo, Michael Hall and Sally Parrish.
Theatre: MCC Theater, 120 West 28th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues)
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Saturday at 3 PM.
Tickets by phone: Box Office: (212) 727-7765.