History Boys

Weekly Webb: ‘History’ evokes memories of teacher

May 20, 2011 12:00 am  •  By JACI WEBB Of The Gazette Staff

I still remember my junior high history teacher, Mrs. Regan. She could smell Juicy Fruit gum from 20 feet and I trembled when she walked by.

She’d point her long bony index finger toward you and you knew you were in trouble. But she also had stories in her. And if you didn’t cause too much trouble and were granted one more day in her American history class at Lincoln Junior High School, you could sit and listen to her talk about men she knew who fought in World War II and women (including herself) who fought for equal pay and respect in an era when gender equality was often scoffed at.

She was smart-mouthed and sarcastic, but never mean. She never allowed a mind to sit idle in her presence.

I caught glimpses of Mrs. Regan in Adam Jacques when he squinted into the eyes of his teenage charges in the role of the eccentric teacher Hector in a preview of Venture Theatre’s “The History Boys.”

Jacques tells one of his students that what makes reading special is that it produces thoughts, sometimes so powerful “it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

It’s easy to see why “The History Boys” is a Tony Award-winning play, because the Alan Bennett script captures the rambunctiousness and cleverness of teenage boys so authentically. The cast is made up primarily of local high school students rising to the challenge of playing Oxford-hungry Brits, accent and all. Kevin Schweigert, himself a teacher, portrays the driven headmaster who recruits a young teacher, Irwin (Ryan Gage), to use all forms of trickery to get the boys into Oxford.

As the boys prepare for their exams to get into a good university, staff rivalry and adolescent anarchy rear their heads, prompting questions about what’s important in life. Dina Brophy plays the history mistress Mrs. Lintott who believes a steady course of facts is all the boys need in school.

Director Craig Huisenga said preparing for the production, which opens tonight (Friday) and runs through May 28, has prompted much discussion on what makes a good teacher.

“All these kids’ educational experience is so fresh,” Huisenga said. “We’ve talked about this ‘good teacher’ thing. Everybody says they wish they had a teacher like Hector, but they never did.”

Huisenga said the headmaster is sort of a “ ‘No Child Left Behind’ guy” because he only cares about test scores and quantifying learning. Sound familiar?

When the headmaster tells Irwin how to take over Hector’s class, he points out Hector’s flaws.

“There is inspiration, but how do I quantify that?” the headmaster said.

Venture’s artistic director Robert Brian Wood said the boys are the heart of the story, which is full of both history and humanity.

“It’s a universal story — and an important one — and I am thrilled to put it up in our Black Box,” Wood said. “These are people you know. The teachers are real, honest, and represent a real debate in education.”

I’m not sure if I held onto many facts I acquired in eighth-grade history. But I am certain that it was Mrs. Regan’s insistence that equality be achieved that led a shy, 12-year-old girl to challenge the school district’s mandatory dress policy for girls in the ninth grade. It remains to be seen if Hector, even as a fictional teacher, can influence the lives of the eight boys who play his students — Chase Andersen, Andrew Eagle, Tyler McKinley, Taylor Roberts, Kevin Kass, James Bowling, Riley Wisler and Justin Choriki.