Theatre Jacksonville opened the second of its Guerilla Show Series, which promises theatre with a bite. In place of a black box or second stage, TJ has started this series, with occasional productions of edgy plays for two-weekend duration, between regular season offerings.
On stage through January 29 is Ian Mairs “The Learning Curve.” Let’s cut to the chase; this show is a winner, very funny. Don’t miss it. The plot revolves around Mitch (brilliantly played by Josh Waller), a young man who accepts a temporary job teaching English in the public schools after leaving an unfulfilling and distasteful trainee position in a corporate setting. As he has never been a teacher, he is apprehensive and scared silly by the job but he does need to work.
Playwright Mairs, who accepted just such a job in 2006, has an in-depth knowledge of the setting, and we follow Mitch as he becomes acclimated to the many vicissitudes of the profession. The school principal Lois Lewis (Harolyn Sharpe), who carries out her duties with world-weary indifference, assigns a long-time male teacher as his mentor. Shep (arrogantly played by Bill Ratcliff), is fifty-two years old, and a veteran who knows the ropes, including important shortcuts for avoiding work and confrontation. His advice to Mitch is often curt and confusing, leaving the neophyte teacher anxious and bewildered much of the time. Shep advises that teachers must never use the ‘F’ word no matter how much they are provoked, and must never be alone with single females. Also, they need to keep in mind that form is more important than content. He is obviously an uninspired teacher, who manages to keep his job using additional techniques that he doesn’t share with Mitch.
Mitch interacts with four students in his class: Ellen (Emily Auwaerter), Mimi (Jane Cassingham), Zubair (Zach Ignacio), and Ty (Joshua Mitchell), all unique personalities who test Mitch’s patience and skills. The role of Ellen by Ms. Auwaerter is a featured character. She frequently sits to the side, writes in her journal, and speaks directly to the audience with clever and witty observations about student life.
Maris has added two delightful characters to the mix. Helen (Simone Aden-Reid) and Phyl (Brooks Ann Hayes Meierdierks) were teachers who have passed away and now reside in the great classroom in the sky but apparently can roam freely, unseen by others. They comment on the actions taking place on stage, using frequent references from the classics, and offering their opinions on everything from the students to the teachers and management.
One final character making a cameo appearance as Alice, an administrative secretary, is Lauren Schwec, who is also one of stage managers for the production, along with Olivia Branstetter and Kenya Lipplett.
This Dr. Lee Beger directed show is fast-paced and hilarious, but insightful. The character development by the entire cast is outstanding.
The set design by Dustin Pettegrew, which included black backdrops, blondewood furniture, and large sliding screens with translucent white panels, is minimalistic but innovative and contributed much to keeping the action moving and the show lively. Abbie Malkewitz’s light design included some unique spotlight effects to emphasize the difference between the interior thoughts and the spoken words of the actors.
Over the past twenty years, we have seen a number of plays by Ian Mairs, who is the most prolific playwright in this area, and we have enjoyed them all. “The Learning Curve” is a real winner and one of his best. We have attended the Humana Festival of New American plays for many years, and this play could without a doubt be in that festival. In fact, if we could pack up the set and the entire cast and transport them to New York, this would be an Off-Broadway hit.
A look at the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune involved with becoming a teacher as explored by Playwright Ian Mairs is a theatrical treat. Be forewarned, there is adult language. Three more performances are scheduled on January 27, 28, and 29 (a matinee) at 2032 San Marco Avenue. Tickets are $15 for the general public, $10 for subscribers and students. Since all seats are general admission, plan to arrive early so you can choose the seat you wish. Call (904) 396-4425 for reservations.