Stage & Dance

Apprentice Players captures the aching complexity of ‘The History Boys'

For their sophomore performance, the Apprentice Players are going back to school.

The young troupe that brought us last year's raw and potent Dog Sees God returns for its second show, a well-done production of The History Boys.

Alan Bennett's play follows a group of eight bright, young British students, and their teachers, as they prepare for entrance exams into prestigious universities. The boys are clever, confused and impressionable; the last year of education at their school spans questions much deeper than exam ­techniques and facts — the nature of love, sex, religion and loyalty serves the unofficial curriculum for a year in which the boys' tense teenage anxiety and anticipation culminate into shocking events and revelations.

Whereas last year's inaugural ­production hallmarked Apprentice Players' talent and potential, this year's production finds them further along in their real-life theater ­education. Mentored by an impressive list of key Lexington theater pros, the young men and women of Apprentice Players, many of whom are poised to enter their second year of college, have made impressive strides as artists. The result is a show of impressive sophistication, nuance and lasting impact.

Director Jacob Sexton is back at the helm and deftly orchestrates the maze of characters, their conflicts, emotions and interrelationships. Sexton cultivates the full spectrum of teenage discovery — from the ­gregariously fun, rambunctious classroom scenes with Hector, the unconventional ­poetry- and film-quoting teacher, to the furtive glances, uncomfortable silences and intellectual challenges of Hector's near ­opposite, Irwin.

The play is much more than a coming-of-age story. It probes the nature of history — the world's and one's own.

Missy Johnston, Adam Luckey and Paul Thomas excel in their roles as teachers with three distinct approaches to these ­questions. Johnston, as Ms. Lintott, teaches the facts, providing a solid foundation of pure ­scholarship. Luckey's Irwin is a new, young teacher whose sole job is to whip the boys into exam shape with morally questionable tricks to turn history on its side.

And then there is Hector (Thomas). ­Effusive, animated, passionate and eccentric, Hector's class of “general studies” is composed of learning poems and films by heart, performing great swaths of intellectual and artistic improv. Thomas' enthusiasm and charisma is infectious, and his Hector is a deeply beloved but deeply flawed man.

Thomas' interaction with the boys is particularly well wrought and complements the ensemble's palpable, dynamic chemistry.

Fresh from SummerFest's production of Lord of the Flies, in which many of the cast members worked together, the boys play beautifully off one another as a group while keenly defining their individual differences.

One of the challenges in an identically dressed ensemble engaged in the same ­activity is carving out the space for individual personality and defined, layered interrelationships. In this they do an excellent job.

David Jackson is at once cocky and insecure as Dakin, the handsome object of another student's — and teacher's — ­unrequited affection. Chris Stahl is moving as Posner, a young Jewish boy in turmoil about his sexuality. Each actor convincingly fashions a unique character whose higher learning intersects with the group's all-encompassing life lessons.

The young men also deserve kudos for their different English dialects (coached by Patti Heying). They aren't always perfect, but they are pretty darn good and generally consistent.

Finally, this show does not shy away from controversy but engages highly sensitive issues, like the Holocaust and sexuality, with blunt courage. Hector, and later Irwin's, affection for the boys clearly blurs the boundaries between teacher and student. Yet his character is so endearing, so pure in its aims for poetry, art and exuberant expression that we sympathize with his plight, even going so far as to root for him against the equally morally challenged headmaster (Bob Singleton).

Wry, witty, edgy and baldly irreverent, The History Boys is a smart dissection of education, history, art and morality whose lessons captivate, challenge and linger.

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