A Lady Among Boys
By Matt Ocks: Assistant Director for The History Boys.
So I know it’s called The History Boys but Alan Bennett’s play has one of the juiciest roles for a woman to come along in quite some time. Mrs. Dorothy Lintott, she of the droll asides and witty interjections, is a treasure. Part Ms. Jean Brody (in her prime, of course) and part Professor McGonagall, she’s a no-nonsense, just-the-facts-ma’am sort of teacher who is loved and respected by her pupils nonetheless.
Lucky for us that she’s being played in this production by Maureen Torsney-Weir. Maureen was in the very first production I worked on at the Arden: A Prayer for Owen Meany. I remember attending a Sunday evening run-through and marveling at how, as Lydia, the Wheelright’s persnickety maid, she could make such an impression while perched in a wheelchair, magnificently maintaining the illusion that she had lost both her legs. Her warm-hearted performance as the grandmother in Caroline, or Change later that season (does anyone else remember how she danced with such abandon in the Channukah number?) confirmed for me her stage presence. One of the great joys of The History Boys has been the opportunity to get to know Maureen not only as an actress but as a friend.
In many ways Mrs. Lintott is the hardest role to play in The History Boys (I can already hear the men in this show crumpling up paper to throw at me, as if I were Posner, the class victim). Mrs. Lintott’s lines tend to be cryptic, rife with double meanings and innuendo. She is able to say a lot to her fellow teachers without saying too much, if that makes sense. Figuring out exactly what she is doing line-by-line has been a challenge for all of us on the rehearsal team, but Maureen’s willingness to experiment with different ideas each time we try a scene has been a lesson in acting and what a safe rehearsal process can allow for.
Take Mrs. Lintott’s impassioned speech in the middle of Act 2 on the role of women in the study of history. We grappled with this speech for several days, but through discussion, experiment, and continually returning to our scripts, Maureen, Terry, our dramaturg Sally and I were able to figure out that the speech, though seemingly directed at the history boys, is in many ways for the benefit of their male teachers, her colleagues. Once Maureen figured out the two-fold purpose of the speech, so to speak, the scene came to life in a whole new way. It was an exciting breakthrough, and of my favorite Mrs. Lintott moments in the play.
Maureen’s done double-duty on this production, serving as our French teacher for the infamous brothel/veterans hospital re-enactment scene (Performed by 9 American actors! Playing Brits! Speaking French!). Maureen instructed the history boys a week before she even began to act as their instructor in the play. When she came to her first rehearsal as actress instead of teacher, art imitated life in a wonderful way.
I’ve watched run-throughs of this play almost every night the past week. I know that when we open, audiences are going to fall in love with all our history boys. Thanks to Maureen, they’re sure to fall in love with Mrs. Lintott as well.
What a touching, very well deserved tribute to a fine actress who always intelligently captures the humanity and essence of the characters she plays.