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by Hedy Weiss, Theater Critic
Chicago Sun-Times

published April 17, 2009

The very fact that TimeLine Theatre managed to snag the rights for the Chicago premiere of Alan Bennett's "The History Boys" -- winner of the 2005 Olivier Award for Best New Play and the Tony Award for Best Play of the 2006 Broadway season -- says a great deal about this company. But it certainly should come as no surprise.

During its 11 years of existence, TimeLine has enjoyed many impressive triumphs -- from its rare revivals of the Harnick and Bock musical, "Fiorello! and Noel Coward's "This Happy Breed," to its premiere of "Hannah and Martin" and its Chicago debut of Tennessee Williams' "Not About Nightingales." Everything it touches is marked by an intelligence and attention to detail that easily matches the work of theaters a great many times its size.

In addition, given that the theater's abiding mission is to stage "stories inspired by history that connect with today's social and political issues," Bennett's play -- set in a northern England high school in the 1980s, as a group of mostly working class boys prepare for the entrance exams that will determine whether or not they will gain entrance to the elite world of Oxford and Cambridge -- seems like the ideal fit. In its arguments about interpretations of history, about the role of social class and politics, and about the true meaning of education (academic, sexual and otherwise), the play homes in on every issue of concern to this theater.

"Yes, there are theaters with more money and more seats in Chicago," said Nick Bowling, who is directing "The History Boys," and who has been responsible for some of the theater's biggest hits. "But we have a reputation now, and connections. And we've already been selling tickets to this show like crazy, with several performances sold out and an extension a real possibility."

That excitement was palpable from the moment auditions were announced.

"The cast is comprised of four adults and eight 'students' who are supposed to be about 17 years old," said Bowling. "We saw 220 young actors for the student roles -- all college age or beyond. I whittled it down to 20 boys, and then mixed and matched to find the combination of personalities and types so essential to the play. We did a lot of theater games to see how they worked together. I also asked each actor to talk about the most embarrassing moment in his life, and that truly helped me decide on the final lineup."

To play the role of Hector, the English literature teacher who traditionally coaches the boys --an eccentric, idealistic and (some would say) perverted man -- Bowling decided to go against the grain of the original productions.

"I didn't see the London or Broadway stage versions of 'The History Boys,' though I did watch the film version long before there was any discussion about producing the play at TimeLine," said Bowling. "My one thought was that no matter how good [the very portly] Richard Griffiths was as Hector, I didn't want to cast a teddy bear sort of person in the role. I didn't want such a sweet, lovable, pitiable Hector. So I chose [veteran Chicago actor] Donald Brearley. He's tall and thin and extremely smart, and has even lived in England. I wanted this tougher edge, so that when he hits the boys it's no love pat. I remembered when I was in school in the 1980s in Iowa, and my brother would get smacked upside the head at times by the principal."

British playwright Alan Bennett, who turns 75 next month, set his play in the 1980s, but it really is a quasi-autobiographical look at his own Yorkshire roots, his struggle with homosexuality, and his school years in the 1950s. The son of a butcher, Bennett earned his degree in history at Oxford, taught medieval history at the school for several years, and then got carried away by show business following a rollicking success in the satirical revue, "Beyond the Fringe," in which he shared the stage with Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke.

Like Bennett, the boys in this play lack a certain urban, middle-to-upper class sophistication, and their school is trying to erase these inequalities as they vie for entrance to the schools that will change their lives.

Bowling finds bits of himself in each of the "boys," as well as in the character of Irwin, the younger, more urbane and cynical history teacher who has no patience for Hector's "learning for learning's sake" approach, and knows all the tricks of the exam trade.

"I taught at a Catholic school in Washington, D.C., when I was 22," said Bowling. "And my students were 18. So I identify with the way Irwin is tested in this play. But as I get older -- I turn 40 this year -- I also connect to Hector who understands that life is not always all that you expected it to be."