On Stage: The History Boys at Palm Beach Dramaworks

For better or worse, our lives are irrevocably shaped by our time in school. The friendships made, the loves lost, the merits achieved, the confidences built, the insecurities sewn—every miniscule moment and milestone reverberates not just in college but in the decades that follow.

   Alan Bennett’s The History Boys—winner of both the Laurence Olivier and Tony Awards for Best Play—illustrates this truth with wit and tenderness. The play offers a lot of raw material for any theater to work with, and Palm Beach Dramaworks sinks its teeth into it with courage. By marrying compelling character interpretations with a pulsating narrative pace (propelled by an awesome ’80s soundtrack), Dramaworks arrives at a memorable production that is onstage through January 3.

The students with Hector (Collin McPhillamy) in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The History Boys. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

   Set in the mid-1980s, The History Boys follows eight male students as four very different educators attempt to prepare them for their A-level exams, which help determine where they will attend university. Director J. Barry Lewis teases out the nuanced relationships that comprise the heart of the play, some of which tread into very murky territory. Where is the line between teacher and friend? What do you do when an effective educator becomes inappropriate with his pupils? What do you do when a charismatic student becomes inappropriate with his teacher? Lewis allows his cast to explore these grey areas, resulting in genuine interactions.

   While the four educators will be very familiar to Dramaworks audiences, the history boys are all new to the PBD stage. The young men shine as an ensemble, but three are given more stage time—and each rises to the occasion.

Irwin (Clif Burgess) and Dakin (Nathan Stark) in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The History Boys. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

   Nathan Stark portrays Dakin, the center of the Cutlers’ Grammar School universe. Stark elevates the character from a cliché John Hughes preppy villain to a vulnerable man-child with an inflated sense of confidence. Posner, played by the utterly charming John Evans Reese, is a soul-crushing delight. Whether by song or by comeback, he energizes every scene he’s in, but he also bears unrequited love for Dakin and buckles under the weight of life’s uncertainties. Even though the religious Scripps’ main purpose is to be a sounding board for Dakin and Posner, Kyle Branzel manages to connect with the audience with punchy asides and a knack for playing the piano with his feet.

   Out of the educators, Hector (Colin McPhillamy) and Irwin (Cliff Burgess) impact the students the most—but in very different ways. While they both urge the boys to question facts, Hector frequently crosses boundaries whereas Irwin never lets his guard down. McPhillamy has appeared in Dramaworks’ Exit the King and Our Town, among many others, and once again transforms while still maintaining his signature timbre that is equal parts Edward Herrmann and Winnie the Pooh. Burgess brings the same passion he had playing Vince in Buried Child to his role as Irwin, calling upon a range of emotions to convey a man conflicted between a love of academia and a desire for more.

   The decade in which The History Boys is set, the 1980s, is such a strong presence throughout that it too feels like a character. Sound designer Tyler Kieffer builds a mix tape of high-energy computer pop to accent each scene—a techno school bell to signal a shift. The set by Victor Becker is a playful puzzle that moves to reveal select spots in the school, spots that are typical in nature but dressed in telling details like posters of Édith Piaf, Albert Einstein, and The Smiths. The perverbial cherry on top of the ’80s sundae are the costumes by Erin Amico. While the boys wear uniform slacks, ties, and blazer, many of them boast small odes to their personal style.

   All this ’80s awesomeness and a plethora of strong performances truly make The History Boys one of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ strongest efforts to date. The cast and crew attack the story with vigor, refusing to back away from the play’s touchier subjects and taking the time to explore the script’s darker territory. It’s the ultimate lesson in fearless theater.

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