By John Lyle Belden
ATTENTION: Your assignment is to see and applaud some very talented youth.
CYT director Laura Baltz told us that her all-kid cast of “Up the Down Staircase,” playing this weekend at Theater at the Fort, were unsure about how us grownups would judge their efforts, especially as it’s a first-time foray into drama rather than comic musicals. But, simply put, John and Wendy were blown away.
The play – based on the 1960s novel – takes place in an inner-city New York high school where a young first-time teacher is confronted by a run-down building, bureaucratically stifled staff and apathetic students. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film or a stage version (or “To Sir With Love” or frankly any inspiring-teacher film), you know the story. But it’s how the teacher gets through the red tape and reaches the kids that’s important, and it doesn’t seem so cliché when the students are actually played by school-age kids (middle-schoolers in high school are easier to accept than Hollywood’s 20-something screen “teens”).
The adult roles are played by elder members of the CYT troupe, and come off as believably mature. I thought I could guess which actors are 18, but Baltz informed me that actually, none of them are.
Abagail Johnson is appropriately inspiring as new teacher Sylvia Barrett. She seems comfortable in her own skin with an optimistic confidence that shines through her character, even when overwhelmed, making you believe in and root for the “Teach” at the center of the story. Sabrina Duprey convincingly plays at least a decade older than her 16 years as Beatrice, Sylvia’s fellow teacher and mentor.
Sam Surrette couples his excellent performance with a cocky swagger as teacher and frustrated author Paul Barringer, who feels he’s too good for the job he’s stuck in until his efforts to stay emotionally distant from his students backfire almost tragically.
Maria Saam ably plays Ellen, a friend who provides outside perspective for Sylvia (and the audience) through their correspondence.
And Joshua Minnich manages the difficult job of injecting humanity into administrative assistant J.J. McHabe, the personification of much of what Sylvia is up against.
The rest of the cast do very well as faculty and students – keeping events flowing and lines delivered sharply (even when the scene calls for them to talk over one another). Jackson Bell and Makayla Cripe handle the dramatic load of portraying students who are troubled, each in a distinctly different way.
As the original story was told in letters, memos and written notes, the play cleverly provides them as loose conversations or popping in through hidden doors in the wall (like the old TV show “Laugh-In”). Ellen’s home, miles away, enters and exits the stage edge by clever lighting. All elements are executed smoothly.
I should note that CYT stands for Christian Youth Theater. It is easy to assume that such a group might feel compelled to insert Bible verses or otherwise “Jesus-up” the show, but there’s no preaching here. The play carries a theme of Christian compassion that speaks for itself.
And the teachers’ plight might look a little too familiar, even 50 years after the story was written.
As for the concerns mentioned earlier, these young thespians needn’t worry. They are doing solid work in an American classic. My advice to them is to keep working on the stage as long as you feel inspired to, and take the play’s notion of reach-exceeding-grasp to heart. It might not always work (still, you did your best, right?) but this time it definitely did.
Just one weekend of performances (weather permitting) Friday through Sunday, Jan. 13-15 at 8920 Otis Ave. on the former Fort Benjamin Harrison grounds, just off the north end of Post Road. Info at www.cytindy.org.