Set entirely in one room with five accused teachers and a proctor, Topher Payne’s world premiere play, Evelyn in Purgatory, examines the idea of having to defend one’s own honor and name. The winner of the 2012 Essential Theatre Playwriting Competition, the comedy evokes much laughter, but is primarily a character study on the traits that define us all.
Right or wrong, everyone must defend their own name at times. The dividing line amongst us is whether each of us accomplishes that task with integrity or maliciousness. Payne examines that dilemma in the setting of one of New York City Department of Education’s “rubber rooms,” where accused teachers wait months on end for their disciplinary hearings.
Witty, engaging and thought-provoking, the play captures the reality of the situation without being overtly political, allowing the human story to take precedence. The realistic and spot-on depiction of the teachers brings the production to a different level. Anyone who has spent time in a faculty work room or lounge will recognize these individuals.
A true ensemble piece, each actor on stage complements the others. Amanda Cucher (Evelyn) plays the shrewd young teacher, who is desperate to clear her name, with an understated forcefulness. As the hippie art teacher Lila, Jo Howarth brings heart to the production while Betty Mitchell’s Roberta, a ready-to-retire teacher, slings verbal jabs and zingers with ease. Both males in the piece, Rial Ellsworth (Fred) and Jon Wierenga (Toby) create memorable characters as a coach and science teacher respectively. Completing the onstage cast is Megan Hayes (Candace), who plays the neurotic proctor.
Payne’s greatest feat of this play is crafting a group of characters with such depth. Each character is so distinct and at the same time universal that each will stay with you upon leaving the theater. You just may find yourself sitting at work the next morning pondering Roberta’s situation.
While the ending is a bit abrupt, it remains powerful, especially when looked at with Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible in mind. More than just being a conversation piece for the teachers as they await their hearings, The Crucible plays a larger role in Payne’s story as certain elements mirror the classic work.
With an engrossing and tightly-woven play by Payne and remarkable talent on stage, Essential Theatre’s production of Evelyn in Purgatory can’t be missed. Like the previous two winners of the Essential Theatre Playwriting Competition, which have been picked up for second productions, Evelyn in Purgatory is likely to follow in those footsteps – and soon.
Directed by Betty Hart, Evelyn in Purgatory runs in repertory with The Local and Bat-Hamlet through August 5 at the King Plow Arts Center. For tickets and a performance schedule, please visit Essential Theatre Festival’s website. The show’s runtime is approximately two hours with an intermission.
– A. Wesley