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Up the Down Staircase

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The Summer Company at Duquesne University offers a lively, convincingly acted production of a simple-minded play. It's Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Bel Kaufman's celebrated humorous novel Up the Down Staircase.

But I didn't notice any humor. Instead, it seems to want to say something serious about the ups and downs of public schools. When the book first appeared, 45 years ago, Kaufman's observations might have been fresh and entertaining. But as something this earnest, it features stock characters in obvious situations. 

Sylvia Barrett, an idealistic young teacher, begins her career at an inner-city high school, but starts out unable to control the class and frustrated by bureaucracy. Over time she becomes assertive and gets her students interested in literature and in actually thinking about what they are studying. Yet Sergel does nothing to make it clear how Barrett turns around the class, a major flaw. 

In Kaufman's book, people express themselves in letters, notes and memos. Sergel uses that device well, having Barrett write her thoughts to a friend, and students reveal themselves in notes to her. Subplots center on Barrett trying to win over a very hostile student, and the issue of how to deal with the provocative presence of another teacher, Paul Barringer, who impresses the girls and himself. Barringer actually comes across as the most interesting -- and the only unpredictable character. 

The cast calls for 18 students and 11 adults, with most performers looking and sounding right for the roles. Director Rebecca J. Stevens has done a good job of getting believable performances. Clearly, she also has made sure that the characters have separate identities. And even when the stage gets crowded, she moves everyone effectively: Nothing looks forced or clumsy. 

While the program book provides no biographies of cast or crew, the students do resemble students. Apparently, some of them are; at the opening performance, Duquesne University students in the audience responded raucously when the class first appeared on stage. Among those actors, Ash Halli, Cassandra Hough and David Diederich give the most distinctive and sincere performances. As for the adults, none adds memorable personality, but most succeed in seeming real.

Apparently, the play gets widely produced at actual high schools. Maybe it can get students to appreciate and understand their faculties better, and discover genuine individuality.

 

Up the Down Staircase continues through Sat., June 12. Peter Mills Theater, Rockwell Hall, Duquesne University campus, Uptown. 412-243-5201

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