In Loco Parentis
nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
August 14, 2010
In loco parentis is Latin for "in place of a parent," a legal term for the authority educational institutions hold over minors in order to protect their best interests. The play takes its title from this concept, aptly exploring the kinds of emotional issues teachers take on, above and beyond the act of teaching, when sharing the lives of young people day to day. The focus is on the relationship between Carly, a high school senior who lost her mother to cancer three years earlier, and Mr. Browning, her sarcastic and dedicated English teacher.
Mr. Browning has agreed to teach Carly privately after having insensitively pushed her to connect her own experience to that of Hamlet in front of her classmates. We follow their course through Shakespeare's play, with each of their personal lives progressively disclosed. The seminal overachiever, Carly grows to want to become an ideal woman, as well as an ideal student, in her teacher's eyes. Playwright Michael DeVito skillfully sets out the erotic charge that often accompanies mentorship and the thrill of learning, the gray area between shared intellectual discoveries and a yearning for greater emotional and physical bonds. Carly fishes for compliments and disingenuously closes up the physical boundaries Mr. Browning carefully establishes and must struggle to maintain.
Desmond Dutcher holds the energy of the show, giving a solid performance as Mr. Browning. His delivery conveys the complexity of the whole human being: a teacher who is beleaguered by the administration and the yearly rehashing of the phony college admissions rituals, yet remains loyal to his initial passions for literature. His expressions of bitterness verge on inappropriate, yet are always redeemed by the connections he makes with his students.
Ravi, another student, and Carly's father make brief appearances, but these other characters don't seem essential to the story being told. A leaner text, with a two-person cast, might increase the dramatic tensions and deepen the layers of the teacher-student relationship. Such an intimate focus could also serve to loosen up the staging: the great majority of the action centered around Mr. Browning's desk and the actors' physicality becomes stagnant, undermining the dynamic progression in the writing. (Jonathan Warman is the director.)
Such visual components are especially important in that the play also purports to be about theatre as a metaphor for life (as any work dealing with Hamlet is to some degree): the teacher's role as performer, the way we control our image in others' eyes, the entrances and exits people make in our lives.