Learn Me My Need
Written by Elizabeth Irwin
Directed by Damon Dunay
Presented by Sublime One Productions
WorkShop Theatre, MainStage Space,
Non union (through
Review by Judd Hollander
The most seemingly cynical and shallow people can in fact be the most caring, while the most innocent and idealistic can quickly become the most opportunistic, as shown in Elizabeth Irwin's rather involving Learn Me My Need, which recently finished its run at the WorkShop Theatre.
English Lit teacher Klay (Irwin), a ten-year veteran in an inner city high school has, through necessity, become hard and jaded with a strong "bullshit detector" and "don't cross me" attitude. It's a talent she demonstrates more than once while showing the ropes to fresh-faced Chrys (Melissa Woods), a new recruit to the teaching ranks. But in her heart Klay cares quite deeply. It's this caring which Manny (Emil Mequita), a once bright, now failing student, latches onto. Manny's life fell apart when his parents split up. His mother is gone who-knows-where, while his Papa (Raphael Bollea) spends the day in an emotional funk, all but ignoring his son.
Needing some sort of stability in his life, Manny finds it
in Klay's detention sessions. The two pass the time talking as one person to
another, rather than teacher and student. As Manny gets the advice and
direction he desperately needs, Kay unconsciously begins to open up to him,
giving little bits of her personal history (such as her birthday). Things that
she tells told Chrys should definitely be off limits to students
But while Manny responds well to Klay, he is in free-fall in his other classes, which soon puts Klay, who has become rather protective of him, in an unenviable position. She may feel she is the best person to reach Manny and get to the root of his problems, but finds herself forced to go up against her fellow teachers, and the principal, in order to do so. All of whom may soon start to wonder about the connection between the two.
While there are hints of crossing the forbidden line between teacher and student, other than a few moments, (one very awkward, the rest all one-sided), the story doesn't go in that direction. Instead, Irwin focuses on the at times desperate, at times nurturing, relationship between these two people. While Manny eventually begins to realize he is the only one who can get his life back in order, Klay's life is revealed to be completely empty and the reason why she has thrown herself so totally into teaching is because she has nothing else. (Due at least in part to a painful relationship in her past.) It's a situation that she refuses to admit until she can no longer hide the truth from herself, with devastating results.
Irwin is excellent as Klay, providing a strong-willed character we think we know almost immediately, but in the end realize we know nothing about her at all. Mequita is good (albeit a bit stereotypical) as a troubled kid trying to make some sense of his life. Two interesting surprises are the characters of Chrys and the math teacher Brix (Ronald Washington). Brix is unconventional in his own way (just as some of Klay's methods might be similarly construed), he has little respect for authority or anyone else for that matter, but it turns out he cares deeply about his students. An incorrigible soldier in the war against failing grades, he's definitely someone you’d want on your side. Washington nicely brings all these qualities to the fore, including the passion, attitude and smarminess of the character.
Chrys meanwhile, is the one person that changes the most over the course of the play, and Woods is quite believable as she transforms the character from a wide-eyed idealist to a battle weary cynic, as well as someone to be wary of. Her final moments with Klay show someone who's become a bit too nosy, self-assured and a touch threatening.
The only place the play doesn't really work is with the character of Papa, who does little more than moan about his missing wife. It would have been much better if Papa was angry, bitter, evil, or anything except just sitting around being depressed. As a result, there's little reason to care about this character. Plus, if he were given more to do or a bit of a backstory, it could have opened up a whole new layer of characterization for Manny and made them both more than what we actually see on stage.
Also lending strong support are Nelson Ruiz as Manny's friend Esteban, and Yadira Martinez as Cruz, the school principal.
Damon Dunay's direction is good, although the endless changing of scenes becomes a bit tedious after a while. Perhaps some longer segment would work better than the myriad of shorter ones. (Something other than lights going up and down for the transition might also have helped). The sets, uncredited in the program, are okay, but despite their worn look, still seem a bit too clean to fit the motif of an aging, underfunded and overcrowded school. The grunge factor is just not there. The show's costumes (also uncredited) were fine.
Irwin has fashioned a very interesting tale about two people being slowly torn apart from within. While not perfect, the core story is excellent and the cast is quite strong. One looks forward to the playwright's next effort.
Copyright 2008 by Judd Hollander
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