The title of John Donnelly's play "The Knowledge" comes from the famously detailed road maps and directions that London cab drivers are obliged to memorize before they attain their license to drive a black cab. Some days in Chicago, you might wish for such a requirement. But at the Steep Theatre — where blistering storefront experiences like this one are not uncommon — the play in question is not about taxis but teachers and teaching.
Simply put, "The Knowledge" is a politically incorrect and hilariously funny look at the challenges of teaching in a tough school with aggressive kids, and it is also a withering takedown of how bureaucratic, underfunded school systems can scare off the most promising teachers and fail the kids who need them.
Donnelly, whose frank drama premiered at the Bush Theatre in London in 2011, spent many years as a teacher. And anyone who has spent time in those particular trenches will, I think, recognize the veracity of the classroom situations in which a young, straight-from-college teacher named Zoe (Caroline Neff) is deposited. It might be about a rough school in Britain, but the issues of public education don't wash away in the Atlantic crossing. And this play has the unmistakable accuracy, and attitude, of someone who knows what it's like in the heat of the kitchen. Veterans of the classroom and anybody contemplating a career in teaching will find much here upon which to chew.
Since Zoe is the newest hire at this school, she gets stuck with the toughest students: a sexually promiscuous girl named Karris (Carolyn Braver), the insecure Sal (Sarai Rodriguez), the moody poet Daniel (Jerry MacKinnon Jr.) and, worst of all, the openly hostile Mickey (Clancy McCartney, in an unstinting performance), whose every word is an aggressive put-down or a profanity-laden sexual challenge. The other teachers — Maz (the slippery Michael Salinas) and administrator Harry (a goofy Jim Poole) — have figured out how to navigate long-term careers in this kind of environment, not least by figuring out how to look out for themselves and by acquiring some cynicism. But Zoe, whose life was a mess even before she walked into a classroom with the forlorn hope of teaching English, is at the center of a storm. And despite a very simple production with almost no set, director Jonathan Berry and his cast know how to make those youthful forces rage with such ferocity that you're scared the students will start abusing those of us in the seats who would not revisit adolescence for all the money in the world.
I was thrust back to one memorable incident at my school, more than 30 years ago, when a new teacher was literally hounded from the classroom. It was not our — my — finest hour. So it goes with poor, flailing Zoe.
In its sympathy for flawed teachers who might break all kinds of rules but nonetheless love their jobs and care about their students, "The Knowledge" has a lot in common with Alan Bennett's "The History Boys," and it is every bit as enjoyable and as emotionally powerful. But at its core, Bennett's play (and movie) was a sentimental reminiscence about very bright students trying to get into Oxford and Cambridge universities, an assignment of which the quotidian teachers in "The Knowledge" can only dream. Harry actually makes reference to such a mirage, a sly dig at the better-known play.
By contrast, there is no dew in Donnelly's eyes, no memories of gifted teachers and youthful appreciation of literature, poetry and history. The kids in this play have barely any experiences beyond groping around their neighborhoods — although these fine young actors (Braver is especially moving) show us that they all are smart and, given a more fair educational system and more settled homes, they would have every chance of success. Donnelly is concerned with the nuts-and-bolts stuff that drives rank-and-file teachers crazy: Kids who won't shut up, sexuality infusing every discussion imaginable, students attacking on another, and the desperate sense that, even if these hormonally dysfunctional beasts are wrestled into some kind of submission, no teacher can do enough to help them.
Zoe, who is stuck in a classroom where the money ran out before it ever became "smart," wants only a few items from the stationery closet. That need for a mythical place of learning resources causes her colleagues, the ones who know the way of budgets, to decry her brief idealism and collapse in laughter.
Some of the dark places to which Zoe goes (with her students) would get her in serious trouble stateside, and for good reason. Be warned this is an edgy, raw play. Few dramas that love teachers have the guts to make teachers so flawed. Donnelly has no problem there — Zoe is, to a large extent, an inept mess. But thanks in no small measure to Neff's moving performance, Zoe remains a deeply sympathetic character in this piece, a piece that not only charts why teaching is so very, very hard in these circumstances but is honest about the malevolence of young people. It cuts through a lot of cliches about education, but "The Knowledge" (not really what this school is about at all) still is an intensely compassionate play: real, raw and true.
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Through May 25 at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn St.; 2 hours, 20 minutes; $20-$22 at 773-255-4000 or steeptheatre.com