Moving lessons in ‘Sex and Education’ at the Laguna Playhouse

One of the great debates of public education and its relationship with sports has often come down to what one does with a great athlete who is so sure of his (or her) place in the world that a rounded education seems superfluous.

In a time when schools, and educators, are condemned if they cannot reach the entire spectrum of the student body, this can be particularly frustrating. Fortunately, sometimes that very frustration can make for great theater, and a chance to examine even the more prurient reasons why education matters.

Such a piece of theater is Lissa Levin’s “Sex and Education,” now at the Laguna Playhouse. In one long, intimate act, it examines the last few moments of a long-time high school English teacher’s 30-year career, when she decides to use a basketball star’s intercepted, profanity laden note to his girlfriend as a teachable moment. The result? A virtual hymn to the necessity of education, and the delight of language, which proves funny, fascinating and in a particularly important way, affirming.

Nick Tag is Joe Marks, a young man whose basketball prowess has made him a local celebrity and garnered invitations to play at a number of major colleges. All he has to do for that dream to begin is to pass his last English final.

 The rule is, pass a note, flunk the test, and Miss Edwards catches him passing a note to his cheerleader girlfriend Hannah. Now he’s staying after school in hopes of convincing the teacher he insulted in a note she then read that he should be passed along to his destiny.

At least, that’s what he thinks this is about.

Tag makes a very convincingly overconfident teenager, radiating an assurance shielding a more vulnerable interior. As Hannah, Alexandra Johnston proves extremely funny as she creates cheers based on the more obvious, and then the more prurient aspects of the dialogue between teacher and student, yet can also be gently serious as Joe’s earnest but conflicted girlfriend.

But the main reason to see this particular production of this play has to be the performance of Julia Duffy as the frustrated, impassioned, adamant Miss Edwards. Duffy finds the balance between love of language and fury over disrespect, creating a compelling vibration on stage which is impossible not to find absorbing.

Director Andrew Barnicle takes the larger Playhouse stage and narrows it — and his characters’ sense of enclosure — thanks to Trefoni Michael Rizzi’s fascinatingly open-yet-claustrophobic set. The pace never stops and when this play without an intermission ends, one is startled to have been sitting so long. It proves just that consistently engrossing.

And, of course, there is a larger force at work here. Miss Edwards takes Joe’s aims in his snarky note seriously, asks him to think about the power of the words he uses — even if they are all aimed at getting his girl to have sex with him — to create actual impact and compelling argument. She expounds on the necessity of education to even holding a reasoned conversation in ways that, to be frank, make you wish you’d taken her class.

In the end, this is an homage to the foundational nature of learning. And it doesn’t do one teenaged basketball player any harm, either.

So, tool on down to beautiful Laguna to catch this fine performance of a most moving play. Levin has a gift for crafting language which sounds like ordinary conversation, yet imbuing it with an internal poetry both subtle and telling.

That makes these characters all the more interesting and the ferocity of conviction on all sides a satisfying time in the theater.

One warning: the discussion includes colorful language and discussion of sexual situations. If this is not your cup of tea, don’t go.