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ACT II: A second look at area stages — ‘The Knowledge’ and ‘Rabbit’

Melanie Derleth as Emily DanBlack as Sandy Kate Black-Spence as BellNicholas Harazas Tom 'Rabbit' Steep Theatre. | Johnny Knight

Melanie Derleth as Emily, Dana Black as Sandy, Kate Black-Spence as Bella and Nicholas Harazin as Tom in "Rabbit" at Steep Theatre. | Johnny Knight

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When: Through June 23

Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn

Tickets: $20-$22

Info: (866) 811-4111;



When: Through Sunday

Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $25

Info: (773) 975-8150;

Updated: May 28, 2013 12:29PM

While the British class system of the early 20th century is still alive and well courtesy of TV’s “Downton Abbey,” two very different manifestations of English class-consciousness in our own time can be found in a couple of strongly acted and directed plays now on Chicago stages.

John Donnelly’s “The Knowledge” — in a Steep Theatre production that has been extended through June 23 — looks at British working-class kids, and the teachers and administrators of a high school in which everyone is distracted by bad behavior. Directed with ferocity by Jonathan Berry, the play is a reminder that Chicago is hardly the only place where public education is in chaos.

Nina Raine’s “Rabbit,” which completes its runs Sunday with a zestfully acted Stage Left production directed by Elly Green, homes in on late twenty­some­things from the upper-middle-class, artist-intellectual-professional set. Despite their privileged existence, they are every bit as angry and resentful as the adolescents who can barely dream of being close to where they are.

In “The Knowledge,” Zoe (Caroline Neff), a young, untested teacher, is thrown into the deep end of the pool with a citizenship class populated by troubled, intensely precocious adolescents who are masterful in their efforts to sabotage her. Her students include Mickey (Clancy McCartney), the foul-mouthed kid with an explosive violent streak; Karris (Carolyn Braver), the pretty girl who has had some sexual experience but whose naivete, and need for love, become increasingly apparent; Sal (Sarai Rodriguez), the girl from an immigrant family who is mostly a watcher; and Daniel (Jerry MacKinnon Jr.), the gifted and troubled son of a father who works as a London cabbie.

Along with an unquenchable resentment of everyone and everything, and a rush of hormones for which they have no outlet, these students can smell insecurity a mile away, and they proceed to torment Zoe, prodding her about her sex life and more. She begins to buckle, but then realizes she can give as good as she gets. She also makes some very bad mistakes. And she is subtly undermined by both her teaching colleague(Michael Salinas) and the school principal (Jim Poole), who has no intention of jeopardizing his imminent retirement.

Donnelly pushes things a bit beyond full believability at times, but he also has a grand flair for bristling dialogue. And the Steep ensemble acts the bloody stuffings out of this show.

(Note: There is much suggestive sex and obscenity in “The Knowledge,” so use discretion if you are thinking of taking the kids.)

Sex is very much on the minds of the considerably older and more practiced characters in “Rabbit” too. So is success and anger (the play is essentially a brutal if witty war of the sexes), as guests gather for the 29th birthday of Bella (Kate Black-Spence), whose advertising career isn’t quite what she had in mind for herself and whose difficult relationship with her high-minded dad (Sean Sinitski), who is near death, remains unresolved.

Trading lacerating observations about themselves and each other are Bella and her lovers: Richard (Dennis William Grimes), an acid-spirited barrister and novelist, and the kinder, gentler Tom (Nicholas Harazin). Her girlfriends are polar opposites, too, with writer Sandy (Dana Black), brazen and brash, and Emily (Melanie Derleth), a nurse, quieter and more emotionally balanced. The fine cast deftly captures the way personal cruelty has become a substitute for connection in this bitter, competitive, status-conscious little corner of British society.

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