Heart-wrenching ‘Learning Curve’ a rare evocation of high school

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A classroom scene from “Learning Curve,” the fully “immersive” production about high school life by the Albany Park Theater Project. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Maybe it is the class about “The Great Gatsby,” in which a super-smart boy whose first language is Spanish painfully struggles to answer questions in English and breaks down in frustration. Or maybe it is the math test that left my palms sweating exactly as such tests invariably did throughout high school. But then there is that enigmatic solo dancer in the stairwell. And the girls’ basketball team joyfully practicing its moves in a locker room. And the scene about a great romantic’s prom invitation. And the dart-playing session with the subtly manipulative Army recruitment officer. And the fearsome hall guards. And the otherworldly library complete with a purple velvet armchair.

‘LEARNING CURVE’ Highly recommended When: July 27 – Nov. 19 Where: Albany Park Theater Project at Ellen Gates Starr High School, 3640 W. Wolfram Tickets: $40 Info: (866) 811-4111; www.aptpchicago.org Run time: 2 hours, no intermission

Most of all, it is the phenomenal skill, the fierce ensemble spirit and the heart-wrenching truthfulness of the 33 teens (many first-generation immigrants) who comprise the cast of “Learning Curve,” Albany Park Theater Project’s (APTP) altogether wondrous, one-of-a-kind, “immersive” masterwork. The show captures life in a Chicago public high school in ways that are so real, yet so imaginative — so disturbing, and at the same time so life-confirming — that you want to grab hold of every politician and school bureaucrat and say: Experience this show, and then do something.

Hector Velazquez plays the resident romantic with Kiara Lyn Manriquez as his desired prom date in “Learning Curve,” a production of the Albany Park Theater Project. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Hector Velazquez plays the resident romantic with Kiara Lyn Manriquez as his desired prom date in “Learning Curve,” a production of the Albany Park Theater Project. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

In addition to everything else, “Learning Curve” — created in conjunction with the Brooklyn-based Third Rail Project, and in partnership with the Goodman Theatre — is a monumentally complex piece of logistical genius that unspools (on three floors and in several classrooms, utility closets, stairwells and more) with such seeming ease of timing and emotional variation that you can only wonder how it was constructed. Each performance can accommodate a maximum of 40 people, but that group is constantly divvied up into much smaller groups, with a couple of one-on-one experiences also engineered into the overall running time of about two hours. No one takes quite the same route, but the end point for all includes caps and gowns.

As with many schools these days, you must pass through a metal detector to enter Ellen Gates Starr High School (an actual shuttered parochial school that, for this project, has been “renamed” in honor of the social reformer and activist who co-founded Hull House with Jane Addams, and established the Chicago Public School Art Society). You are then “processed” and given a photo ID, with time to ponder the school motto, which, translated from the Latin means: “What you do, do well.”

And no theater company does it better than APTP, whose team of directors here includes David Feiner and Jennine Willett, with Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Stephanie Paul, Maggie Popadiak, Edward Rice, Rosanna Rodriguez Sanchez and Carlton Cyrus Ward, plus a massive team of designers (notably Scott C. Neale and Mikhail Fiksel), and technicians too numerous to list here, although their names can be found in the “Yearbook” program handed out as you leave. Master magicians, one and all.

And speaking of magic. The unique alchemy at work in the presence of these young actors is unlike anything else around. Each one is astonishing in his or her way. But I will never read “Gatsby” again without remembering Mrs. Torres (Lizbeth Acevedo) and her student, Santiago (Gustavo Duran). I will never forget Maidenwena Alba’s exquisite dance (and mischief). I will never again see a dart board without thinking of the ROTC recruiter played by Abraham “Kito” Espino. And I will not soon forget Hector Velazquez’s beguiling serenade of Kiara Lyn Manriquez. Of course there also are the devoted but exhausted teachers who are as oppressed by standardized test as their students, and must deal with a shortage of textbooks, discipline problems and adolescent angst (and joy).

My single concern (spoiler alert here) is with the scene in which the school’s most passionate teacher is discovered secretly “correcting” tests, and explains her action as a desperate effort to keep her school from being closed because students’ grades failed to meet the required numbers, even if their individual progress deserves to be measured differently. Her reasoning could not be more fervent, but she is committing fraud. That should somehow be noted beyond the guilt on her face.

Otherwise, “Learning Curve” is a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event. Do not be a truant.

Maria Velazquez plays the librarian in Albany Park Theater Project’s “Learning Curve.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Maria Velazquez plays the librarian in Albany Park Theater Project’s “Learning Curve.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

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