Every Secret Thing

The horrors of McCarthyism in a high school resonate in Boulder today.

Judy GeBauer's Every Secret Thing deals with the effect of McCarthyism on a group of high school teachers, and it couldn't have premiered at a more fitting time. Fox's Bill ("Shut up!") O'Reilly has just set his sights on a Conference on World Affairs panel at Boulder High School that apparently discussed drugs and sex in terms too straightforward for him, and it's only the latest example of an organized, persistent right-wing attempt to intimidate and silence teachers. Does anyone remember an Aurora geography teacher who was suspended because he commented that some of George Bush's statements sounded like things that Hitler had said? Or Tresa Waggoner of Bennett, placed on leave because she introduced Satan into the classroom by showing children a thirty-year-old instructional video on Gounod's Faust that featured singing sock puppets? It's a mark of how powerful the echo box has become that school administrators take these manufactured controversies seriously and newspapers discuss them as if they had actual content, rather than being the vicious, bullying tactics they so obviously are.

GeBauer based her play on a civics teacher at her high school who was called before HUAC and thereafter disappeared. In this thoughtful and well-written script; Richard Packard is contacted by an FBI agent and asked to spy on his colleagues. A popular, foreign-born teacher leaves the school; Packard contemplates a secret from his own past; another teacher, Andy, worries about a Jewish book group he attended as an undergraduate that talked about things like "a better society" and "more for the masses"; a music teacher veers into danger because of her love for Prokoviev and Mussorgsky; and the well-meaning but spineless school principal hovers and frets. There's also a strange student named Maxine who loves writing and reading about assassination attempts on presidents and lingers with unnerving relish on Wilfred Owen's lines in Dulce et Decorum Estabout the soldier dying in a gas attack: "If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/ Obscene as cancer."

This Modern Muse production is somber and dignified. It makes good use of a low-budget but artfully arranged set and is filled with interesting music. Director Stephen J. Lavezza has also assembled an almost impeccable cast. Gabriella Cavallero makes Barbara Penning, the music teacher, wonderfully warm and human; Josh Hartwell plays the nosebleed-prone Andy Lawton with a riveting and neurotic intensity; Jim Hunt is a kindly principal; Jessica Posner gives a sharp, enigmatic performance as Maxine. Holding everything together is Gregory J. Adams's anxious, intelligent Dick Packard. You like these characters and you care what happens to them — but still, this isn't really drama. These fine actors are essentially playing one note: The principal, Drew, is always anxious and ineffectual; Dick always concerned; Barbara nurturing and somewhat puzzled. No one ever surprises us. The question the play raises — will Packard betray himself and his colleagues? — is answered fairly swiftly, and we're even half-expecting the reversal that occurs. Maxine turns out to be misguided rather than wicked or seriously mentally disturbed, and even the FBI agent (played by an ever-smiling Jono Waldman) reveals himself as a decent sort who believes in the work he does. While the play is absorbing, there are few genuinely theatrical moments.

But, Every Secret Thing does succeed entirely as an extended discussion of a very important subject. Everyone should see it, then go to a bar or coffee shop afterward to discuss the content.

Last weekend, I wrote to state senator Steve Johnson, one of the Republican lawmakers calling for the removal of Boulder High's principal and the district's school superintendent because of the World Affairs panel. I asked how Bill O'Reilly, a man forced to settle a sexual harassment suit on secret terms, had become a moral arbiter and why Johnson and his colleagues were focusing on this small incident rather than such genuine issues as education and health care. This is the e-mail he sent in reply:

You are simply wrong. There is no more important issue than the safety and education of Colorado kids.... The Administration has admitted they required the students to be there, that is not in doubt. This is not a partisan issue. Reasonable Democrats and Republicans agree kids should not be told to take drugs. I'm not responsible for the silence of Governor Ritter and the Democrats. They have to answer for themselves.

This is the level of thinking used to drive people from their jobs. Do you smell demagoguery? Are you afraid yet?

 
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