By Michelle F. Solomon
Probably the last place you’d want to be after rehearsing with the same cast and crew for weeks, then knowing you’re heading into a month-long run would be gathering at a table for Thanksgiving dinner. But that’s where some members of the cast of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The History Boys found themselves on the recent holiday.
Director J. Barry Lewis thought it was important “that we all get to know each other better,” since the show about eight boys and their teachers at a private school in northern England, is such an ensemble piece. The knowing, he says, is “important to the work.”
Alan Bennett’s The History Boys isn’t a new play. It premiered in London in 2004, won a 2005 Olivier Award for Best New Play, then won a 2006 Tony Award when it moved to Broadway. But it’s been on the radar for Dramaworks for several years. Both Producing Artistic Director William Hayes and Lewis had seen the play in its original form in London and on Broadway.
“We were taken by the play on several levels,” explains Lewis. “One of them is its very strong universal themes of dealing with the power of education, the worth of education, and the idea of education for education’s sake.” Lewis turns philosophical. “Why do we learn, what do we learn, and then there’s the constant struggle of teaching towards the test. If students are only learning toward the test, what’s sustained?”
Lewis says original director Nicholas Hytner’s work was “so impressive. And, of course, I was influenced by it and the impact that his direction made on the play.” But the Dramaworks director said he wanted to explore more levels, which included Bennett’s use of time.
“Sometimes the characters step out and talk directly to the audience, sometimes the play goes forward in time. Then, as an audience, we need to listen carefully to all of those pieces. I call it the puzzle that doesn’t truly fall into place until the end of the show.”
It was the challenge that he set forth for himself and his cast to “find a delivery system that really takes all those puzzle pieces and makes sure that they are clear to our audience – then finally put them in place to create a total picture.”
To say the play is beloved in its home country of Britain is an understatement. In 2013, it won a poll commissioned by the English Touring Theatre asking people to vote for their favorite English play. The History Boys won out, beating the likes of Hamlet and The Importance of Being Earnest.
Lewis says he embraced the “very British play.” He’s kept it very British, right down to the accents. The play takes place in the mid 1980s – this is the era of Margaret Thatcher – at a state grammar school in Sheffield. The eight boys are studying for their Oxbridge Finals, known as the toughest exams in the land, but which are the golden key to unlock entrance into Oxford or Cambridge universities. “We can certainly relate to this in the U.S., where the stress and pressure would be akin to trying to get in to Harvard or Yale.”
Almost as difficult as the exams, was the task of casting the group of eight boys for the Dramaworks production. “They are supposed to be in their final year of school before university – maybe 17 or 18.” Lewis confides that he found, what he says were wonderful local artists, but there was a problem. “Many of them were still in school, so we had to bring in actors from other places who had already finished their education and were out in the real world.”
The four adults are Dramaworks regulars: Angie Radosh, Cliff Burgess, Colin McPhillamy and Rob Donohoe.
“Certainly the boys are on a journey throughout the play, both in their education and discovering themselves, but each of the four adults have a specific journey that they find themselves caught up in, too.”
Lewis has discovered yet another level.
“It’s a wonderfully, complex, character driven piece of theater.”
The History Boys opens Friday, Dec. 4 and runs through Sunday, Jan. 3 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Performances run 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $64. Call 561-514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.