Saturday, April 14, 2012

DeWolff’s Outliers far above the mean

For anyone who’s ever felt on the outside, Grace DeWolff’s Outliers is a treat.

At first I related mostly with the 8-year-old Danny (Sebastian Weigman), exiled to his Gifted & Talented classroom of one. But as the room’s science teacher Mr. Host (Luke Erickson) gets Danny to open up through patient listening and engaging in a dialogue that respects Danny as a human being—accepting his outlier status as a kid who wrote his What-I-Did-For-Summer-Vacation essay on how he stared at his backyard fence for an hour and then started to levitate—I came to identify more with the teacher.

Mr. Host is an outlier too, exiled to run the Gifted & Talented classroom, but without any real authority. Still, he takes pride in his work and a bond develops between him and Danny. There’s a lesson about patient listening and open, honest dialogue here that seems to me to apply beyond a teacher-student relationship. We sense he’s a teacher who cares deeply about his students, but mostly powerless outside of this role, yet accepting of who he is—a man who drinks tea while the other teachers drink coffee, a man who takes childlike delight in the vaporization of water, a childless man whose pencil is always perfectly sharpened.

Another actor might not have been able to make all his lines seem emotionally real because conceivably they could be read flat or ironically, but I thought Erickson was convincing. It felt like Mr. Host cared. It felt like he was empathic with Danny’s suffering.

The conflict in the first part of the play focuses on whether the teacher will give Danny an “Emotional Intelligence Survey”—an optional ScanTron test the powers-that-be want him to take in order to substantiate that the Gifted & Talented program is worth the state tax dollars. It comes secured in a blaze orange file folder sealed by loud Velcro.

Mr. Host objects to how this survey could stigmatize Danny. Danny fears it will mean he’ll be sent away. But at a high moment in their relationship, the teacher offers Danny the test that isn’t a test. Danny refuses it. He writes Mr. Host another essay instead.

It’s implied that Danny is a high-functioning autistic, though one of the points here is that his label doesn’t matter (at least in the context of the Gifted & Talented classroom). Later it’s learned that Danny has had a violent episode in another class and his mom now will require that he receive some other kind of test anyway…

Through Danny’s incessant questioning, DeWolff gives us a refresher on the value of childhood in general and the corresponding paradoxes of adulthood—Why do adults acquire tastes they don’t like? Why is everybody on a computer all the time? How does all our stuff work?

To me, the core of this play occurs when Danny uses the classroom whiteboard to lecture Mr. Host about what he’s learned about statistics. Why doesn’t his teacher incorporate error bars on the graph? Danny asks honestly. And what makes an outlier an outlier?

Danny is a bright, observant, and plucky boy, focused on understanding actuality rather than projecting appearance. He’s also overwhelmed by input, both sensory and mental, well depicted by a swelling noise effect that accompanies Danny holding his head in his hands in anguish.

When Danny reads his essay, Weigman grips and twists his notebook with the clutching intensity of kids strangling their favorite blankee. We know that everything about him is being channeled into whatever he’s focusing on, and that makes for an appealing character.

Mr. Host is almost the complete opposite in one respect—he is the portrait of self-restraint. He touches nothing with intensity, everything with gentle moderation. It’s somehow touching that the science teacher doesn’t actually—I don’t think—touch Danny at all except to shake hands, though in one scene he clearly wants to physically comfort him yet restrains, presumably out of deference to protocol and propriety. Of course, there’s more dramatic power in not having them embrace, and DeWolff wisely avoids a send-off hug.

At first, Jazmin Vollmar’s school administrator character offers a counterbalancing comic element to the story that focuses on two emotionally straightforward males, but soon her layers are also revealed. Mrs. Duchamp isn’t just a floozy administrator. She’s overwhelmed by pressures on all sides and lives in the crux of a daily dilemma—resources don’t exist to serve or independently evaluate special kids like Danny, but she’s trying to do what can be done to create some small place for him in the Gifted & Talented program; yet this escape valve is vulnerable to further budget cuts if success cannot be quantified to the “higher-ups.” She understands Danny is different, but in the interests of all the children’s safety, violent or unpredictable behavior can’t be tolerated at the school.

There are also three creative scene breaks where the characters directly address the audience, which elevates the game here. Mrs. Duchamp passes out the Emotional Intelligence Survey to the audience and reminds us how to fill in the proper bubble—but there are no wrong answers. Danny reads his essay aloud at center stage. And before inviting his class to partake in a lab experiment, Mr. Host discusses the phases of water, remarking on how, though counterintuitive, its density is not a linear function of its temperature.

As the uncle of three young kids, one of whom just turned 8, and the nephew of a longtime schoolteacher who has experienced her share of special kids over the years, I thought Outliers was a sensitive portrayal of a significant challenge to humankind and in particular facing education—how to deal with the other.

One of the reasons I tote around a platypus is to call attention to the intrinsic failure of classification systems to represent reality accurately. These systems are by nature artificial, so they cannot encompass all variety, yet they are often too useful to abandon and so they persist. One danger is thus in believing the systemic boundaries to be more real or true or valuable than reality itself. When it’s people who fall outside the boundaries of these systems is when they become particularly pernicious because there are human consequences to our systemic failures, even despite everyone’s individual best efforts.

Toward the play’s climax, we feel the pressures grinding each of the characters and restraining them in our imperfect—but real—world: Mrs. Duchamp considers Danny’s second essay in the darkness; Mr. Host considers his powerlessness to change the world to better fit its Dannys; Danny responsibly considers that maybe the next chapter in his life will help him to adapt to the world, since the world is thus far incapable of adapting to him.

Outliers is not a simple play, but neither is it complex. It feels clean and condensed, with very little wasted motion. It has an ending, but we are invited to interpret how these three characters will change offstage as well as to grapple with the equivalent challenges facing our real schools, real teachers, real students, and real governments.

Following the show, the chatter was about the quality of DeWolff’s work and that she should seek to have others pick it up. I suggested it be staged in the state capitol rotunda. It is a human look at the ramifications of societal choices, a dramatization that gives a face to one idealized little boy in a way perhaps more emotionally accessible than contemplating the tens of thousands of individuals like him in that they don’t fit the system we have built in attempt to serve our nation’s children and turn them into the next generation of adults.

No comments:

Post a Comment