‘Start Down’ is a chilling tale about virtual education

Donald Danford, left, and Timothy Liu co-star in "Start Down," which is at the Lackland Center in Hackettstown through April 24.


Donald Danford, left, and Timothy Liu co-star in “Start Down,” which is at the Lackland Center in Hackettstown through April 24.

“People don’t need more time staring at screens,” argues a character in “Start Down,” a thought-provoking play that is currently being presented by the Centenary Stage Company at the Lackland Center in Hackettstown.

The play is about two couples and the powder keg of an idea that threatens both their relationships: What if you could create software that would teach every student in the country with startling efficiency?

One character in the play is the mastermind behind a new business devoted to developing this software. Another is his good friend and main financial backer. You know trouble is on its way because their two girlfriends are teachers — one is tentatively supportive, and the other is against the idea from the start.

Playwright Eleanor Burgess — who developed the play in Centenary’s Women Playwrights Series, last season — gets a little bogged down in intellectual discussion early on, but brings it all together in the second act, exploring the devastating consequences of her characters’ actions.

The setting is the San Francisco Bay Area; the time ranges from the recent past to the near future. Will (played by Tim Liu) is the software developer, and effectively embodies the reckless enthusiasm of the dot-com world. He’s still young, but feels the need to make a big splash, right away. Ethics are a distant concern: He feels someone will make his idea happen, eventually, and it might as well be him.

Actually, there’s more to it than that. It will kill him if it’s someone else who ends up doing it, and making all the money.

Timothy Liu and Molly Densmore in "Start Down."

Timothy Liu and Molly Densmore in “Start Down.”

It’s good that we see his girlfriend Sandy (Molly Densmore) not just talking about her work as a history teacher, but dealing with a troubled student, Jesse (Gabriel Robinson), and helping him as no mere computer program could.

Will and Sandy’s friends Adam (Christopher J. Young), who funds the venture, and his girlfriend Karen (Jeanine T. Abraham), a math teacher, also find their relationship strained by the project, but the two couples are in very different places by the end of the play. Will’s software developing assistant, Matty (Donald Danford), lightens the mood, from time to time, with his clownish, cloddish behavior.

The software program allows students to work at their own pace, with multiple choice questions and videos that address exactly what they need to learn, every step of the way. Teachers are there for support, but as it turns out, the students are quite happy to stay focused on the questions and the videos, and so the teachers become irrelevant. The play’s most powerful moments come when director Margo Whitcomb gives a taste of what such a system would feel like by letting a character, and the audience, step into Will’s world of virtual education.

Time is unrealistically compressed in “Start Down,” in order to let Will achieve his goals. Work that would normally take months or years is done in days and weeks.

You know how slowly school systems are to adopt change in the real world? Well, in this play, one agrees to make a huge change in the way it teaches immediately after Will makes his pitch.

Could Will’s system ever work? Probably not, for a variety of reasons. But it represents certain current trends in the education world, taken to their logical conclusions, and so there is, at least, a tinge of possibility about it.

“Start Down” is ultimately something of a fable. But it’s a good, chilling and quite timely one.

“Start Down” runs through April 24; visit centenarystageco.org.

In conjunction with the play, Burgess will give a free writing workshop today from 2 to 5 p.m., and appear in a Q&A session after the play’s 7:30 p.m. performance. She will also appear with education professionals in an April 17 panel discussion titled “Ed Tech and the 21st Century.”

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