As a 26-year-old (sessional) English professor who occasionally feels out of her depth (such as when she gets assigned to teach technical report writing instead of literary analysis), the 27-year-old teacher protagonist of Erin Fleck’s Those Who Can’t Do… (directed by Shari Hollett) resonated with me strongly when I spent 75 minutes with her on Thursday night. In fact, I was taking a break between teaching, grading and then grading some more when I watched the show, so let’s just say I was primed for understanding.
As difficult as it is to teach engineers how to write memos sometimes, I imagine it is vastly more awkward to teach 14-year-olds sex ed. This is the unenviable position Lillian Campbell finds herself in at the beginning of the school year; the low woman on the totem pole gets switched from English and Ancient Civ to Health, with only a manual of objectives from 1999 (the most recent edition) for company. Factor in a progressive attitude, paucity of personal sexual experience, and students who take her message both too seriously and not seriously enough, and you have a potentially explosive mix in a small town. A scandal catapults the program, and Lillian, into the public eye, or at least the parents’ eyes.
Playwright/performer Fleck takes us through Lillian’s tumultuous “experiment,” in which the teacher struggles to end the cycle of shame that she feels has ruined her own approach to sexuality and threatens to do the same to the school’s young women. The topic is in many ways as timely now as it has ever been, and Fleck’s script deals with it sensitively but is not afraid to raise the frustration level, both with her unresponsive students and the even less responsive town. The one dramatic issue here is that Lillian seems so obviously in the right that some of the other adult characters sometimes appear more nuanced versions of villains out of a Victorian children’s fantasy.
Where Fleck succeeds is when she asks the questions that are extremely difficult to answer: what is the difference between sexual empowerment and being taken advantage of, by the media or others, or being reduced to the sexual impulse? How can we support the healthy sexuality of our youth while still giving them a firm grounding in the possible consequences of this exploration? How does anyone know if he or she is truly “ready”? How do parents reconcile their own teenage experiences, desires and mistakes with their current protective impulses? And how do we expect teachers to be the ones to discuss these sensitive, confidential subjects with their students, attempting to build trust while ultimately required to be responsible for parental opinion?
The play is not just a diatribe on these subjects; while asking these questions, Fleck gives us a moving portrayal of a woman who is coming to terms with her mother’s past disapproval of any sexual expression, whether it be toward the neighbours’ son or Leonardo DiCaprio’s brooding expression in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. As well, we listen to the teenagers, and here we see a greater richness of character and conflict that could serve some of the adult characters. Each character is introduced by the writing of his or her name on a chalkboard, a potentially time-consuming or awkward signifier that is actually quite helpful. That is, Fleck’s styling of each signature is an effective exercise in non-verbal explanation. We can figure out when a character is uptight and proper, or understand immediately the unbalanced, sloppy lettering of a teenage boy. It’s extremely helpful, in part because we’ve got an initial mental image, but also in part because each character’s voice and physicality are not as defined in performance as they could be, though Fleck’s performance remains compelling.
At the end of the performance, each patron is given a button that reads, “know thyself.” I won’t do you the disservice of explaining why, but the message is a good one. Some more focus on character and a little less on message, and Those Who Can’t Do… will be an even better teacher.