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The English Teachers
As the flower is the universe in microcosm, so says playwright Edward Napier, is Ceredo-Kenova, West Virginia a small place that mirrors the world. Mr. Napier's second play, The English Teachers, is again set in the Appalachian South where he grew up. ( Til the Rapture Comes had a brief run at the WPA theater earlier this season -- see link).
His serio-comic drama is an eyes-wide-open tribute to his many school teacher relatives -- and most especially to his Aunt Dorothy Viola Napier who was a real grand dame of the Huntington Community Players. Her counterpart in the play is one of two sisters. Both are English teachers, but with sharply diverging tastes in literature and goals.
The Aunt Dorothy Viola character, here named Polly Walker and touchingly portrayed by Alma Cuervo, entertains pipe-dreams that her success playing the male lead in The Man Who Came to Dinner with the Huntington players might translate into an acting career in New York. In the meantime she can't even hold a teaching job, having just been fired (not the first such dismissal) for introducing her students some of the less polite language of poet Allen Ginsberg.
Polly's latest dismissal plus her actressy affectations infuriate the more proper sister Victoria Campbell (Pat Nesbitt). What's more, it puts her campaign for state office at risk. Her platform for improved opportunities for teachers is welcome, but the other changes in the offing in the year 1960 are hardly embraced in this conservative community. To add to Victoria's campaign problems there's her rebellious daughter Libby (a somewhat too shrill Amy Whitehouse). gungho to lose her virginity to Bobby Preston (Michael Hall), the handsome boarder who for all his youthful sex-appeal is ahead of the curve of 60s ideals and changes. Aunt Polly secretly encourages the flirtation and ends up yearning for his affection herself.
To provide the major comic relief to the family disagreements and the campaign, there's Victoria's best friend, teaching colleague and savvy campaign manager, the always first-rate and funny Ruth Williamson. The fact that she teaches math rather than art or literature is in keeping with the anything-to-win toughness beneath her fluttery Southern belle veneer. She has a dominating mother whom we only meet by way of her some one-way phone conversations which are among the play's comic highlights.
The sisters' mother Mary (Sally Parrish), whom we do see, is fanatically devout though being a good Christian doesn't prevent her from being intolerant towards Catholics (the reason she wouldn't vote for Senator John F. Kennedy). In the end, love for the mother as much as any really convincing growth and change in their characters helps the sisters to rise above their hostilities.
As in his first play, Napier knows how to evoke a strong sense of place and provides a number of poignant scenes -- notably, Polly's trip to and back from New York. The scene when lays bare her neediness before Bobby is both Napier's and Alma Cuervo's emotional pièce de résistance.
Despite the excellent cast, a sure-handed directorial debut by Robert LuPone, however, The English Teachers never quite connects the dots between its various themes. I think somewhere in that unmined West Virginia territory is a play which will, like those rare teachers who occasionally cross our paths, make a lasting impression.
'Till the Rapture Comes