Florida playwright Shamrock McShane specializes in characters whose hopeful worldviews are poisoned and ultimately choked by the insane realities of contemporary life. He creates idealists who become cynics who become desperate when a single compromise inevitably leads to chaos.
Chaos, that is, that they knew was coming and were helpless to deflect.
McShane wrote “The Votive Pit,” a drama about de-sensitization and despair in the American public school system, after putting a lid on his own lengthy career as a middle school English teacher. So he knows firsthand what the disillusioned teachers here are talking about: Kids are out of control, the equipment sucks, administrators are fools, and the old promise that every child will get the best darn education possible is as useless as Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement.
But all is not dark and pessimistic in McShane’s story, and in this wonderfully-crafted film version by the playwright’s son Mike. The chief protagonists, Odyssey Middle School instructors Edna (Sara Morsey) and “Bald Man” (the nickname given to the dangerously unscrewed science teacher, portrayed by the playwright himself) are given to bursts of great humor; it’s gallows humor, to be sure, but it sure leavens the lamentations over the violence and altogether great apathy that pervade the school system.
“Being a teacher is like being the captain of a ship at sea,” someone observes early on. “No one can help you.”
This is immediately followed by an announcement over the school’s omnipresent P.A. system: “Mr. Jonah – Please give us your location?”
Also great fun to watch is Scot Davis as the history teacher Dedalus, who likes to get up in front of his class in character, and appears in everyone’s dream sequence with a different story to tell.
Then there’s Wendy, the school’s platitude-spewing vice principal, played by Julie Tidwell with a combination of smiley-faced corporate blandness and coquettish sweetness. “Thank you for sailing a steady ship,” she cluelessly intones during her morning announcements.
For a low-budget film shot on video, “The Votive Pit” is eminently watchable. Shot in a real middle school in Gainesville, Florida, it is superbly lit, with sound that never falters and bold, professional camerawork. The editing, too, is first-rate. It never feels like you’re watching somebody’s film-class home movie; that’s a lesson for all budding filmmakers.
Like most of Shamrock McShane’s work, “The Votive Pit” will make you think, and it’ll make you mad. This film version will do both, and it’ll also make you want to show it to somebody else who’ll get it.
Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers