The folks at TimeLine Theatre know how to generate a buzz.
Securing the rights to the Chicago-area premiere of Alan Bennett's "The History Boys" was something of a coup for the respected, mid-size company. The announcement came more than a year ago. That left plenty of time for anticipation to build for Bennett's Tony and Olivier award-winning sexual and intellectual coming-of-age tale about middle-class teens at a middling boys' school in northern England.
It was worth the wait. TimeLine's production triumphs. Look for it to figure prominently come award season.
Masterfully directed by Nick Bowling, with a terrific, all-encompassing set by Brian Sidney Bembridge, it's a carefully attuned show: personal and heartfelt but not overly sentimental.
Bowling has assembled a stellar cast dominated by the "boys" of the title, an infinitely likable, absolutely convincing octet whose suburban contingent includes a couple of impressive newcomers from Naperville and Glendale Heights, along with several veterans hailing from Lake County. What's remarkable is how thoroughly these eight young actors inhabit - with equal parts swagger and sensitivity - the roles of precocious prep school students preparing for the exams that will determine whether they'll be admitted to Britain's elite Oxford and Cambridge universities, or relegated to their second-tier counterparts.
Equally remarkable is Bennett's play, a droll, dense examination of education that matches Tom Stoppard in its erudition and exceeds him in affection.
"The History Boys" pits old-school idealism against new-school pragmatism in asking the question of whether learning should be cherished for its own sake or seen objectively as a means to an end.
Bennett expresses these opposite views through his teachers. The beloved, deeply flawed Hector (a complex performance by the excellent Donald Brearley), values knowledge for knowledge's sake and truth over all. Unfortunately, his affection for his boys transcends the proper student-teacher relationship. Then there's Irwin (the brilliantly understated, inaccessible Andrew Carter), the repressed, young academic coach who advocates "flavoring" the facts and manipulating the truth for maximum effect.
"History nowadays is not a matter of conviction," he says. "It's a performance."
Irwin urges his students to adopt the contrary view - "find a proposition, invert it and look around for proof," says one convert - not because they believe it, but because expressing it sets them apart from their more privileged counterparts. That bit of academic gamesmanship, Irwin suggests, gives them an edge with the examiners deciding their fate.
An unsettling discussion of the Holocaust reveals the danger of Irwin's intellectual relativism, which Hector derides as "journalism." At the same time, there's something to be said for encouraging young people to challenge the norm, reconsider that which time has hallowed, dabble in the subversive now and then. Kudos to Bennett for incorporating it among the many ideas "The History Boys" addresses. Kudos to Bowling and company for expressing them so eloquently.
The cast includes several newcomers, among them the perceptive Will Allan, a North Central College senior, who plays the sensitive, self-aware Scrips, and Northwestern University junior Alex Weisman. Weisman is pitch-perfect as Posner (who embodies both the success and failure of Hector and Irwin's ideologies), an awkward young man infatuated with the class heartthrob Dakin (a seductively, self-absorbed Joel Gross, a Metropolis Performing Arts Centre veteran). Also deserving mention is Michael Peters as the shrewd but unrefined Rudge, the school jock counted out before he even enters the game; Glendale Heights' Brad Bukauskas as the comedian Timms, Rob Fenton as hipster Lockwood and Behzad Dabu and Govind Kumar as Muslim students Akthar and Crowther. Rounding out the cast is the ever-reliable Terry Hamilton as the status-conscious headmaster and the razor-sharp Ann Wakefield as Mrs. Lintott, the lone woman in the world of boys.