David Eldridge's "Under the Blue Sky" is a closely observed, carefully built and rather sad play — and thus ideal for Chicago's intimate and unstinting Steep Theatre — about the love lives of schoolteachers. Unless you're talking scandal, that's unusual in itself. But Eldridge's British teachers aren't attracted to their students; they all date their colleagues. And as with most workplace romances, that presents a particular set of challenges. But Eldridge, one of Britain's best younger playwrights and a writer who has no time whatsoever for cliched sentiment a la "Mr. Holland's Opus," hardly stops there.
Although he gets in through the bedroom, the fevered field trip with a fellow chaperon and the broken faculty heart, Eldridge is really writing about the human effect of teaching as a calling — specifically, the challenge of coming to terms with a profession that inherently makes you, as one of the older teachers notes, forgo your own ambitions in service of the ambitions of others. It is a sacrifice that the rest of the world mostly fails to appreciate.
Although this play is by no means a recruitment tool for a job that's far more psychically complex than outsiders realize, I don't think I've seen a play that better gets at what keeps teachers awake at night on either side of the Atlantic. If you teach, I think you will see some of yourself in one of the six characters — three fraught pairings, either on the frustrated knife-edge of eros or entirely collapsed in its dangers — Eldridge has created.
This is a quiet, measured, three-scene drama about the pull and push between cheerful selflessness and the feeling that you are not appreciated; the paradox that it's usually more satisfying and intellectually challenging to teach privileged kids at private schools than to fight on the inner-city barricades, even though helping the kids that need it most was probably why you went into teaching in the first place; and the sense of life passing fast, as students flash through your classes and you remain.
That's not to say that you need to be a teacher to appreciate this play. If you have ever stood there smiling while an attractive someone broke up with you while simultaneously serving you a gourmet dinner, flattering you and talking about the certain pleasures of ongoing friendship, then you might find the first of this trifecta of affaires du coeur so uncomfortably true as to be almost impossible to watch. Caroline Neff, who plays the dumpee who sees it coming, as dumpees so often do, offers a truly blistering and pitch-perfect take on a young teacher who knows her chance of happiness is about to clear off to a posh school in the countryside, leaving her in the urban dust. It is so very sad a scene. That's followed by a very different relationship — a living-on-the-edge teacher (Julia Siple) so needing to make someone jealous, she picks up her nerdiest colleague and proceeds to remind him that even the faculty lounge can come with a brutal hierarchy of desire. In the third and final vignette — seemingly anxious not to send us out the door entirely depressed — Eldridge makes room for the possibility of some late-career love, and a pair of characters who come to terms with the reality that no teacher can be perfect, no servant of others wholly without their own needs.
I wouldn't say that Brad Akin's production, beautifully designed by Scott Davis, is perfectly cast: to some extent, it feels like he is matching roles to company members, rather than finding the ideal actors. And the second, very sexualized scene is staged with a certain directorial reticence that gets in the way of such a relentlessly honest piece of writing; you don't entirely believe it. And the age difference in the last piece doesn't feel as pronounced as the characters claim.
But all three of these pieces feature some blistering acting, and I don't use that term lightly. Alex Gillmor, playing a man who simultaneously gets everything he wants and total humiliation, departs for some very dark destinations. And in the last scene, Melissa Riemer and Jim Poole are really very moving, as the classroom clouds peel away with the struggles of the bedroom, and the teachers finally take a moment to see the blue skies they surely deserve, even though it might never seem that way.
When: Through Nov. 19
Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $22-$25 at 866-811-4111 or steeptheatre.com