By Manning Harris
The Alliance Theatre is presenting “Start Down,” by Eleanor Burgess, the 2016 winner of the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, and it runs through March 6.
The Kendeda Competition truly makes a Cinderella of its winner: She gets a full-scale production in the 200-seat Hertz Stage. Ms. Burgess’ script will receive publication by Samuel French, and “Start Down” already has a second production planned for a prominent New Jersey theatre. Perhaps best of all, she is instantly a “name” in the American theatre community; so the Kendeda is a real lauching pad for its fortunate winner.
Don’t feel too bad, by the way, for the four runners-up: The Alliance gives each of them a staged reading directed by top local professionals, and they, too, are suddenly “names” in the notoriously gossipy (I mean that in a nice way) national theatre community. The Kendeda is the only program of its kind in American regional theatre.
“If anybody here needs me, please let me know.” These words are spoken by Sandy (Annie Purcell) late in the play to her students; she’s the kind of high school teacher we all wish we’d had; thankfully, some of us did. She’s a real communicator, she has empathy, she genuinely cares about her students.
But Sandy’s boyfriend Will (Eric Sharp), who admires her teaching, is a software developer who is eager to create a cutting edge product to make online tutorials tailored to individual student needs. This may sound good, but it opens a Pandora’s box that even now, this minute, threatens to engulf what we know as education.
Let me say at the outset that “Start Down” asks more questions than it answers, and that’s a good thing. There are many layers to be explored here, and the playwright is keenly aware of that; she was briefly a high school teacher herself, and she’s spent time in Silicon Valley as well.
The theatre playbill correctly points out that Ms. Burgess has the guts to dive into divisive issues: how we live, how we educate our children, and our core values concerning technology. So the stage is set for some major ed-tech debates, even if they’re not labeled as such.
There’s another couple in the play: Karen (Tracey Bonner), also a teacher, and her fiancé, Adam (Josh Tobin). The couple are friends; Adam, also a techie, comes from a wealthy family, and he is putting up a large chunk of his own money to initiate and sell Will’s online tutorial.
If Will and Adam are dorks (the play can be very funny; it is a comedy-drama), then their pal Matty (Andrew Puckett) is a super-dork. He often walks and talks like a human computer; it’s a funny, fine performance by Mr. Puckett. Matty has less interest than Will and Adam in the successful implementation of the new program for the students; he just involves himself in the technology.
One of Sandy’s high school students, Jesse (Anthony Campbell) has a key scene with her. There’s an argument between them, and Jesse calls her a name that most teachers would not tolerate and would instantly terminate the discussion. But with great self-control, Sandy responds, rather than reacts. Her reasoned response changes their student-teacher relationship.
Perhaps the central question of the play is this: Are interpersonal relationships between teacher and student a requirement for real education? Socrates would say yes; writer Tom Wolfe would furiously say yes, as he does in his book “Hooking Up,” where he refers to the computer’s assault on the classroom as “Digibabble.” But even Wolfe concedes that what the internet can do well is the rapid retrieval and dissemination of information; and with ever larger classrooms, especially in public schools, their presence now seems vital. But at what cost to the human connection?
The acting here is excellent; I particularly like Ms. Purcell’s work as the impassioned, dedicated teacher Sandy; yours truly tried to be like her when I was teaching. Jeremy B. Cohen’s direction is thoughtful and infused with a fine comic sense.
The play is a tad slow in starting and ends rather abruptly. But the heart and substance of the piece, the excellent dialogue, and the all-important themes make “Start Down” one of the finest Kendeda winners I’ve ever seen.
For tickets and more information, visit alliancetheatre.org.