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Theater Review: Sherman’s ‘Purgatory’ A Cerebral, Enjoyable Dramedy



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SHERMAN — In 2010 New York City Public Schools shut down what they called “reassignment centers.” Teachers nicknamed them “rubber rooms.”

These were rooms where hundreds of teachers were sent away to await academic discipline from the school board. Some were there for days, some for weeks and some for years. It was a type of limbo teachers sat in awaiting their fate. While New York became the center of scrutiny when these centers went public, they existed (and still do in some capacity) all over the country.

Playwright Topher Payne has turned this concept into the dramedy Evelyn in Purgatory, now being presented by The Sherman Players, under the direction of Terry Sagedy.

Sagedy recently helmed the Town Players of Newtown’s production of Boeing Boeing, quite a different play. While Boeing is a door-slamming farce full of physical comedy, Evelyn lands on the other end of the spectrum. It is a very cerebral play that relies on well-crafted characters and smart dialogue to tell its story.

As advertisements for the show note, this story is “like Breakfast Club for public school teachers.” A group of teachers find themselves thrown together in a room with a proctor after various classroom improprieties. Over the next days and weeks, they learn about each other and eventually themselves. It’s a fascinating play, addressing many current issues facing our schools and educators today.

The title character and protagonist is Evelyn Reid (played by Erin Shaughnessey). Evelyn has been sent to the rubber room after being accused of kissing a student.

Shaughnessy deftly and empathetically portrays Evelyn. Her skillful portrayal leaves the audience wondering what really happened and what one might do if they found themselves in the same situation. Shaughnessy strikes a beautiful balance in a character that could just be played as a villain. Here Evelyn is a human being that may or may not have made a mistake.

That is one of the interesting, yet frustrating things about the play: It leaves the audience with way more questions than answers.

Gregg Guest plays Coach Fred Disalvo. On the surface, Disalvo is a rough, brash NYC gym teacher accused of physically hurting a student. As we later find out, there is much more to him than that.

Guest has the audience in the palm of his hand from his first line. He brings humor and heart to this complicated man. His monologue, which ends Act 1, is a devastating highlight.

No-nonsense English teacher Roberta Burke is played by Alexa Wild. Wild is becoming a staple in Sherman and it’s easy to see why. Her very funny portrayal of Burke brings levity to the play, which at times can delve into heavier subjects.

Jimmy Hunter and Madison Alexander play the younger members of this ragtag group, Hunter as first year teacher Toby Fleming and Alexander as room proctor “Metzger” (Candace Metzger). They have great chemistry together and bring fun neurotic energy to both their characters.

Veteran art teacher Lila Wadkins is portrayed by another Sherman favorite, Stacy Lee-Frome. She has the difficult task of playing “mother” to the group and keeping peace throughout the play, which she does nicely. Without spoiling anything, her turn in Act 2 is a force to be reckoned with.

Audiences also hear an authoritative voice throughout the show, provided by stage manager Lynn Nissenbaum.

This is an evening that will leave attendees talking and debating with whoever they attended with, which is what theater is all about.

Performances continue through June 29 at The Sherman Playhouse. For tickets and more information visit shermanplayers.org.

A New York City Public Schools reassignment center serves as the setting for Evelyn in Purgatory, the current production by The Sherman Players. From left is no-nonsense English teacher Roberta (Alexa Wild), veteran art teacher Lila (Stacy Lee-Frome), title character and protagonist Evelyn (Erin Shaughnessey), Coach Fred DiSalvo (Gregg Guest) and first-year teacher Toby Fleming (Jimmy Hunter). —Trish Haldin Photography photo
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