By Ike Holter
Directed by Kip Fagan
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“After great pain, a formal feeling comes -/The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs-/The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore, And Yesterday, or Centuries before?” (Emily Dickinson, #341)
Educators and academics have been trying to determine why schools fail for decades and have yet to identify successfully a formula for preventing the pandemic failure of education – particularly in America’s urban centers. Although Ike Holter’s luminous “Exit Strategy” is set in a failing high school somewhere in Chicago, the playwright avoids the temptation to address the larger issues of school failure – teachers, parents, systems, testing – and narrowly focuses on the exit strategies of seven individuals who discover their high school has one academic year left before being closed and bulldozed. Five teachers have their exit interviews with the school Tumbldn’s Vice Principal Ricky (Ryan Spahn) during the August prior to this terminal year. Only four teachers return in September and they and the Vice Principal are joined by an overzealous graduating senior for the nine-month rehearsal for the school’s final act.
“Exit Strategy” covers the ten-month period from the Exit Strategy Interviews on August 16th through June 16th – several days after the end of the school year. The action take place in Vice Principal Ricky’s office and in the Teacher’s Lounge. The set is designed with authentic detail by Andrew Boyce – the administrator’s office done up nicely and the teacher’s lounge infested with rats and lighted by those fluorescent lights that always seems to need new tubes or new starters. For ninety mind-splitting minutes, the six “survivors” squabble, bargain, organize, and grapple with fate, hoping to keep the school open and their lives salvaged from insignificance.
Arnold (played with a stolid and often reprehensible resignation by Michael Cullen) is the union representative who holds out for the victory of old school norms and prepares to let the City of Chicago win. Senior Donnie (played with an authentic youthful hope by Brandon J. Pierce) hacks into the school’s computer system, sets up an Ingiegogo fundraising page, and manages to inspire Ricky to work with him to fight the system. Sadie (played with a strident veneer but a caring core by Aimé Donna Kelly) and Jania (played with a combative but crumbling façade by Christina Nieves) cannot extricate themselves from their dislike for one another but decide to join the fight for what is right. And Luce (played with a compelling unconditional love by Rey Lucas) serves as the moral center of the group and Ricky’s faithful lover. They manage to organize a parade of “thousands” but their success in protest fails to move the monolithic heart of stone of the Chicago Public Schools.
Ike Holter’s script is richly complex with just the right number of surprises tucked away in the well-rounded characters’ Pandora’s Box of authentic conflicts. Kip Fagan’s staging is fast-paced, energetic, deeply engaging, and unravels each of the playwright’s episodic emotion-laden salvos with subtle seduction. Daniel Perelstein’s sound design is a cacophony of conscience that separates each scene, startles the audience with impassioned sensibility each time the lights come back up, and leaves the audience with no exit strategy from connecting with the extended catharsis of the play.
The City of Chicago apparently takes no prisoners in its battle with “failing” schools and that is certainly the case in “Exit Strategy.” After veteran English Teacher Pam (played with remarkable authenticity and genuine grit by Deirdre Madigan) takes her own life in her office after her interview in August, the entire school begins to mourn not only her loss but their loss: the loss of a colleague; the loss of their school; the loss of opportunities to care more and connect more with one another and their students; the loss of hope; and the loss of trust.
Nothing is the same for Arnold, Sadie, Luce, Jania, Donnie, or Ricky after the death of their colleague and the closure of their school. Some are able to move on and form new relationships. Others – stuck for a time in a matrix of grief and denial – wait for an opportunity to recover from their loss and reboot their lives and careers. But all are embraced by that formal feeling that comes after great pain so beautifully captured in Donnie’s face as the curtain goes down for the final time.