By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Feb 01, 2015 at 11:14 AM

Nothing has quite the power of live theater to shine a light on the world around us – the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures, the good and the bad.

Rarely have I seen a play so brutally honest as "No Child," a searing one-woman play that opened over the weekend at Next Act Theatre.

Artistic director David Cecsarini has built a successful career producing plays that challenge and inform and take a hard and deep look at those things that bedevil our world. With this play, under the powerful direction of Mary MacDonald Kerr and a titanic performance by actor Marti Gobel, Next Act takes a rip at what could be the most serious and vexing problem we face.

The education of our children, especially children of color and children of poverty, is, everyone agrees, a problem that has so far evaded meaningful solution. The thing about this play that is so interesting is that it is such an accurate reflection of the way things are in far too many schools.

The setting is an imaginary high school in the Bronx. A classroom full of bad behavior. A teaching artist who wants to use the world of theater to help these children move outside their little insulated worlds.

Gobel plays all 16 characters, ranging from an 80-year-old janitor who acts as a narrator, to a white principal and Latina grandmother who just had one of her grandchildren murdered by a gang. And there is a gaggle of students – boys and girls, all minorities, all poor and all disaffected. All played by Gobel.

Into the school comes Ms. Sun, the actor who has taken this gig to help make ends meet. The teacher, the Asian Ms. Tam, has no faith in her students and is amused at the earnestness that Ms. Sun has for this task. It won’t be long before Ms. Tam deserts the class and leaves teaching.

Ms. Sun tells this class that they are going to read a play, cast a play, rehearse a play and then perform the play for family and friends and other students.

Imagine the reaction. It ranges from derisive incalcitrance to outright ridicule. But Ms. Sun plows ahead, head held high, hopes held higher. At least until she reaches the breaking point and tells the principal she is leaving.

"I came to teaching to touch lives and educate and be this enchanting artist in the classroom, and I have done nothing but lose ten pounds in a month and develop a disgusting smoking habit," she says. "Those kids in there need something much greater than anything I can give them – they need a miracle, and they need a miracle every day."

There is not an urban teacher in the United States who hasn’t had some version of that speech run through their mind. As this play points out so well, it is a tough job, an almost impossible job at times. But day after day, year after year, so many of them keep on going. It may seem like banging your head against a wall, but you continue to bang.

I worked in the New York school system for a year, and I’ve been in high schools in the Bronx. I’ve seen those "difficult" classes with my own eyes. I’ve worked to find resources that would have some measurable impact.

The truths in this play are the truths in real life, and that is what makes it so very powerful. The problem of educating these children is a complex problem, and it requires a complex solution.

Gobel is absolutely amazing in this production. She has always been an actor of great skill and depth, but in this, she shows a remarkable facility to embrace an issue and slap us in the face with it, no matter which character she is playing. I never apologize for saying that I love her, and never more than in this play.

The thing that Kerr, Gobel and Cecsarini understand so deeply about this play is that there is a place for arts in our schools. Theater and the arts are not a cure all. But the act of expressing yourself as someone else – being a thespian – can clearly move the meter a little ways.

The greatest thing about this play – the most true part of it – is that Ms. Sun didn’t make these kids do anything. What she did, what great teachers do every day, is find a path that lets these children find some success all by themselves. It’s a miracle that happens every day, and this play is just the thing for anyone who is concerned about what’s going to happen to our world.

"No Child" runs through Feb. 22 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.