LAST WEEKEND SAW the simultaneous debuts of two shows written by Portland playwright Susan Mach: Artists Rep took on the fictionalized history of a famous kidnapping with The Lost Boy, while Third Rail opened A Noble Failure, set within the beleaguered US education system.
The timing of this dual debut was a coincidence, I'm told, revealed when the companies announced their seasons. It's certainly a coup for Mach, who bubbled up from relative obscurity (she's a teacher at Clackamas Community College who won an Oregon Book Award in 2011 for The Lost Boy, but hasn't seen a fully staged production of her work in years) to snag a lion's share of the publicity around January's post-holiday theater openings.
Unfortunately, both shows are problematic. And in the hands of two of Portland's best theater companies, with simultaneous premieres begging comparison, most of their problems boil down to their scripts.
The Lost Boy is the fictionalized account of the 1874 kidnapping of Charley Ross. Little Charley's disappearance captured the imagination of the nation, a media frenzy drummed up in part by P.T. Barnum himself. (Crowd favorite Todd Van Voris was originally slated to play Barnum—due to injury, he had to withdraw from the show, leaving poor Gray Eubank in the unenviable position of replacing him. Eubank was fine, but I'm sure I'm not the only audience member who had been looking forward to seeing Van Voris in the role of America's most famous showman.)
On a set that's bare save for a few chairs and a large rug that's eventually peeled back to reveal the circus ring underneath, The Lost Boy wobbles between full-throated melodrama and coy show-biz antics, never quite finding balance between these two wildly different poles.
Mach can be forgiven, perhaps, for her literal depiction of a "media circus"—the involvement of P.T. Barnum makes for an almost too-perfect setup. But the script awkwardly crosscuts scenes of the suffering Ross family (exemplified by a helpless, grounded Dana Millican as the missing boy's mother) with straight-from-the-big-top performances by tumblers and jugglers, gamely mugging for audience applause. Despite a clear effort to comment on the public nature of tragedy in America, the show's threads work at cross purposes, each distracting from—rather than illuminating—the other.
Where The Lost Boy aims for high-concept commentary on media and exploitation, A Noble Failure is a more grounded consideration of our contemporary public education system. Third Rail's production is polished and well acted, but it, too, runs aground on its script. Focusing on an "underprivileged" high school in a gentrifying neighborhood (Mach is indeed from Portland), A Noble Failure examines issues like test-based teacher assessments, staff layoffs, and the difficulties of issuing standardized tests to a distinctly non-standard student body.
Mach deserves credit for avoiding a sensationalized, Dangerous Minds approach to education and instead digs into some of the nitty-gritty of our current system. The narrative she constructs to string these issues together, though, relies on clichéd characters and an oddly technophobic shorthand in which bad guys carry smart phones and good guys don't know how to use an iPad.
Rosalyn (Jacklyn Maddux) is a passionate, wild-haired, longtime teacher whose ability to connect with her students is exemplified in her relationship with the troubled-but-brilliant Ivan (Rolland Walsh). She crankily complies when "the district" mandates that she undergo training to improve her performance, which their metrics have deemed inadequate, despite her popularity with students. Meanwhile, machinations of "the district" are threatening the long-term survival of the school—"the district" being the generic catchall for higher-ups who are out of touch and unsupportive of the teachers in their schools.
Elements of the show feel like pure revenge fantasy. As Rosalyn slings snarky one-liners during her training with buzzword-happy Barbara (Maureen Porter), teachers emerge with a clear moral high ground—Barbara has a smart phone, which is all you need to know about her one-note character.
When I saw the show, bathroom-line chatter indicated that there were plenty of educators in the audience whose experiences resonated with what they were seeing onstage—the arbitrary testing, giant class sizes, and interference from third parties who have no idea what goes into teaching a classroom. The legitimate issues raised by the show, though, would be better served with more complex characters and less reliance on a black-and-white, us vs. them approach to the problems of education.