Monday, April 11, 2016

REVIEW: “START DOWN” AT CENTENARY IS ENERGETIC, FUNNY AND SMART

Sheila and OreoBy Sheila Abrams

Crackling with energy is the first phrase that comes to mind for Start Down, which opened April 8 at the Centenary Stage Company. The play, by Eleanor Burgess, was developed in the 2015 Woman Playwrights Series at Centenary, garnering for the playwright the Susan Glaspell Award.

Not much is missing from this ensemble piece. Directed at breakneck pace by Margo Whitcomb, it boasts snappy dialogue, confrontations about important current issues and ROMANCE! The last, revolving around two attractive and endearing couples, brings this exploration of very real contemporary problems into a human framework. The result: it makes us care.

Sandy teaches history and Karen, math, in an overcrowded public high school in the San Francisco area. Both are bright, caring teachers, frustrated by their inability to provide their students with the individual attention a good education requires.

Sandy’s longtime boyfriend, Will, is a techie, looking for the next great idea. They’ve been invited to celebrate the engagement of Karen to Adam, who works in finance. The chemistry between the couples brings about some explosive reactions.

From Will’s fertile brain comes an idea for a technology that will allow students to progress at their own individual pace. Slower ones will be directed back to easier problems or questions, while faster students will move ahead. Of course, this is all done on screens. (Do students need yet more screen time? someone asks.) What is the teacher’s role?

Will is working with a money-making tech genius of sorts, Matty, who is currently devoting himself to building a social media site for pets. (Facebook for dogs and cats? Do you think that’s beyond belief? Have you ever heard of Dogbook?) Matty sees potential in Will’s concept and, with Sandy’s help, they persuade the school district in which she and Karen work to try the software.

In need of financial support, Will persuades Adam to invest in the project. We won’t reveal where this leads, but it further complicates relationship issues among the four friends.

StartTechies_smAs the software is put into use in real classrooms, new problems arise. Some of this is nicely demonstrated in the interaction between Sandy and Jesse, a student with real potential and real problems. (LEFT L-R Donald Danford as Matty, Timothy Liu as Will. Photo credit: Robert Eberle)

The intrusion of technology into education, and how it might influence the relationships between teachers and students, is a big issue. If Karen has six sections a day, each with 35 students, how can she possibly give daily individual attention to each of 210 students? But if a machine does it—Wait! Can a machine do it? And who is accountable for the results?

This is obviously an intricate web if problems for a playwright to take on. Whether she can solve them, along with a few others, we won’t reveal.

The young and attractive cast handles this high-speed adventure brilliantly. This is ensemble acting at its best, quite the accomplishment for the cast: Molly Densmore (Sandy), Jeanine T. Abraham (Karen), Tim Liu (Will), and Christopher J. Young (Adam) are the four at the center. Donald Danford has a couple of comic turns as Matty and Gabriel Robinson (RIGHT), in his professional acting debut, is a convincing Jesse. (photo credit: Pat Lanciano)

How lighting, sets and props are handled, we won’t even try to describe, but special praise goes to Joyce Liao for the lighting design.

Here’s a chance to have a look at some important contemporary issues while having a good time doing it. You will leave thinking.

Start Down runs at the Kutz Theater, Lackland Center, on the campus of Centenary College in Hackettstown through April 24. There will be a panel discussion about issues raised in the play, featuring three professional educators from local school districts, following the matinee performance on April 17. For information about the panel discussion or the production, contact the CSC offices at 908.979.0900.