Review: Up The Down Staircase steps smartly into real-life classroom conflicts

New high-school teacher Sylvia Barrett(Valsy Bergeron) gets patronizing lesson from English teacher Paul Barringer (Calvin Simpson) in Brentwood College
New high-school teacher Sylvia Barrett(Valsy Bergeron) gets patronizing lesson from English teacher Paul Barringer (Calvin Simpson) in Brentwood College's timely play Up The Down Staircase.
— image credit: Andrew Leong

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" - Robert Browning


Teacher Sylvia Barrett's heaven would be hacking through inane rules and regulations to reach her students with interesting, applied lessons.

But her goal seemed elusive Wednesday during Brentwood College's enjoyable premiere of Up The Down Staircase.

Valsy Bergeron was convincing as frustrated teacher — "Teach" to her gaggle of unruly pupils — in director Susan Quinton's dramatic lesson for trustees, instructors, taxpayers, parents and pupils.

Staircase's local ironies were thick: private-school actors commenting on a troubled public system in Cowichan where its elected trustees were fired last year, and replaced by provincial appointee Mike McKay — who's wrestling with school closures.

Those current events were coincidental to Brentwood's rambunctious drama by American playwright Bel Kaufman, as she turns 102.

Quinton's cast nicely populated James O'Leary's impressive two-story, two-staircase set framing the office, and Barrett's classroom crammed with pupils' troubles and hopes.

Facing a battery of bureaucracy — embodied in picky principal Maxwell Clarke (Calvin Simpson), and vice-principal J.J. McHabe (Ulas Zeyrek) — Barrett saves most of her energy for complex demands from borderline delinquent, Joe Ferone (Hut Chaiyo).

The volatile chemistry of Bergeron's concerned teacher, reaching for Chaiyo's toothpick-chomping punk, was tactile under excellent acting.

Top marks were also scored by Quinton's choice of teens portraying a believable slate of adults, and struggling inner-city youths at chaotic Calvin Coolidge High.

Kaufman's concerns about learning 50 years ago have surely been magnified in America's modern schools.

But Staircase's stern reality certainly reflected Canadian high-school environments.

From egotistical English teacher Paul Barringer (Simpson also), and rule-numbed nurse Francis (Esmé Stumborg), to puppy-love student Alice (Carolina Mahecha), and confused black pupil, Edward (Jordan Charles) — Staircase really stacked a shelf with complex subjects.

Vocal projection was occasionally thin, but climbing this play's messages of hope and persistence was a real education.

School-drama rating: 8.5 lessons out of 10.

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