Playwright: Joe Zarrow. At: Stage Left & Theatre Seven of Chicago, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; www.theaterwit.org; $18-$27. Runs through: May 18
My high school had neither detention nor daily PA announcements but they are a reality of Chicago Public Schools ( CPS ), according to Principal Principle. Actually, detention barely is mentioned and the constant announcements provide comic relief, but both suggest Big Brother may be watching. Against the endemic and well-publicized problems of CPS, a small play such as this may be little more than a pebble in a gravel pit, but author Joe Zarrow keeps it interesting nonetheless and highly amusing even if the laughter sometimes has a bitter tinge.
It's "us vs. them" in fictional Chinua Achebe Academy High School, with "us" being the teachers and "them" being the principal, Ms. Banerjee ( Arya Daire ). She's a technocrat who embraces standardized testing and curriculum, and places no value on interpersonal teaching skills, mentoring or classroom creativity. The teachers, however, reject the idea that one size fits all for their classrooms and students.
The four teachers ( and the principal ) are types rather than fully fleshed-out individuals because Zarrow's play is situation-driven rather than character-driven. You learn little about the teachers beyond the CPS walls and nothing at all about the principal. Ms. Cory ( Barbara Roeder Harris ) is about to retire and world-weary, Ms. Josephs ( Cassy Sanders ) is brand-new and idealistic, Ms. Woods and Ms. Lawrence ( McKenzie Chinn, Elana Elyce ) are somewhere in-between. The story hinges on Ms. Woods' scheme to circumvent the standardized test, the inclusion of "Huckleberry Finn" in the required curriculum, and the principal's soft-spoken but intense efforts to enlist teachers as spies against each other.
Ms. Banerjee is cold rather than villainous, but Zarrow clearly sympathizes with the teachers. He casually drops facts of life about being a CPS teacher: broken copy machines, personal money spent for supplies, burdensome reports to file, required telephone calls to the parents/guardians of absent students, etc. How do you fix a broken system? Zarrow has no answers and wisely limits his focus to the teachers themselves rather than broader issues such as Rahm vs. the teachers' union, school closings and schools in turn-around ( although this is mentioned ). One almost wishes the play took on more.
The tight little ensemble shines under director Scott Bishop. Harris' comic timing and throw-away delivery spice up Ms. Cory while Sanders' eager energy underscores Ms. Josephs' fervor. Elana Elyce is rock-solid as the teacher who observes rather than comments, while McKenzie Chinn delivers the most varied performance as the warm but cagey Ms. Wood trying to play both sides. As Principal Banerjee, a semi-comic role, Arya Daire avoids nastiness as she drily projects uncomprehending authority. Joe Schermoly's cluttered setting of the shared teachers' office looks just like the adjuncts' office I share at UIC, only better! It's spot-on.