And the rest is history

History is simply stories of what has happened. And in the case of History Boys, a play now showing at the Artist’s Repertory Theatre, the subject at hand is a story of teaching.

History is simply stories of what has happened. And in the case of History Boys, a play now showing at the Artist’s Repertory Theatre, the subject at hand is a story of teaching.

The play follows Hector, an aging teacher who takes a broader view of history, and his ’80s British prep school class. He teaches art, history, culture and even French to his students–igniting a passion for learning inside of them.

The talented boys have Ivy League aspirations, so a young new teacher, Irwin, is brought in to prepare them for the obligatory entrance exams. He attempts to teach the boys to think in unconventional ways, hoping to catch the eye of the Ivy League dons reading their essays.

At first it seems the two teachers will end up in conflict, but soon they are thrust into a kind of tense alliance, seeing as they are the only two unorthodox teachers in the school. They share more than this in common, both being attracted to the same sex–indeed, to the same boy. This proves to be the near undoing of Hector, as he is caught fondling one of his students.

Here is where the play itself leaps a bit from credulity. The headmaster asks Hector to resign after learning of the activity. The students, staff and even the headmaster himself are all sad to see him go. They seem to care more for the image of the school than the protection of its students, the notable exception being the one female teacher, Mrs. Lintott.

Perhaps it is simply the British sense of detachment that prompts this uneasy morality. Maybe it is the academic sense of detachment, as evidenced in Irwin’s suggestion to “take a different look” at the Holocaust. Even Irwin is nearly drawn into sleeping with his pupils, averted only by an accident that wounds him and kills the offending teacher, thus absolving the characters of any need to make a moral decision on the deplorable behavior.

The performances are good, though a bit uneven in quality. All of the leads are spot on, but some of the boys struggled a bit with their characters and accents. This is understandable, though, since this is the professional acting debut of several of the cast. A notable performance came from Sharonlee Mclean as Mrs. Lintott. Her affectionate yet exacerbated playing of the character made her smaller role shine.

Chris Harder brings an excellent detachment and ambiguity to the role of Irwin. Josiah Bania gave a disturbingly gleeful performance as Dakins, the boy who Hector is caught fondling. And, of course, Michale Kevin brings great heft and heart to his role as the hero and villain, Hector. The sound design is a major problem, though, with an intentional abruptness that is unnecessarily unnerving.

A couple of Portland State students show up in the play in the roles of students, positions to which they are well suited. Rollie Carlson plays Rudge, an athlete who is the least talkative of the boys. Richard Boyland plays Crowther, the one non-white student, with great enthusiasm. They both give competent performances.

History Boys will disturb you, and likely make you think about things you may not want to think about. Its moral ambiguity forces you to take a firm moral position in response, but leaves you feeling unsure what position exactly to take. Even more than the moral conundrum, though, this play is about lost dreams and what happens when people give up on life.

That may be the best lesson we can learn from history. What we do today will be the history of tomorrow. History remembers those who take great risks, even if they fail.History Boys

At the Artists Repertory Theatre until June 8 Every night (except Mondays) at 7:30 p.m., 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays $20 for students, $30-plus for everyone else. 1515 S.W. Morrision St. On the web: