by Samuel L. Leiter
In Ike Holter’s entertainingly relevant Exit Strategy, set in Chicago’s rundown Tmbldn (sic) High School, a volatile African-American senior named Donnie (Brandon J. Pierce, charismatic) rails about what inner city students have to endure: “every day, since I was in first till eighth, every day we had to go up to the teacher’s desk and ask for toilet paper just so we could go to the bathroom and take a shit, schools so broke you gotta doll out toilet paper like it’s currency.”
His rant capsulizes the immense problems of America’s public education system, where kids are put in embarrassing situations, packed into overcrowded classrooms, penalized by inane bureaucracies and testing mania, forced to use ancient textbooks, provided with twenty computers for 3,000 students, and given supplies paid for by the teachers themselves. In this system, particularly onerous for nonwhite students, “failed” schools are chopped up into controversial “small schools,” shut down entirely, or simply bulldozed.
The last of these fates awaits Tmbldn, a crumbling pile in a gang- and drug-infested neighborhood, where cynicism blankets administrators and teachers; students like Donnie, though, are still optimistic enough to grab for that last brass ring of hope. The play charts the course taken to save the place by Tmbldn’s much abused staff . Donnie, nearly suspended for hacking the school’s website and using it for crowdfunding on the school’s behalf, is crucial to their effort. Appearances aside (those low-slung jeans), Donnie’s toilet paper trauma hasn’t affected his smarts: asked by Ricky why he shows no remorse, he asks back, “Is remorse different than regret?” Only one teacher, the disgruntled veteran Arnold (Michael Cullen, wonderful), resists when his colleagues come up with a rescue plan.
During its intermission-less ninety minutes, Exit Strategy—reminiscent of the recent Skeleton Crew, about the shutting down of a Detroit factory—exposes the problems but doesn’t analyze them or offer specific solutions. We worry about the results of years of neglect on the lives of students and teachers but we’re given little to consider as alternatives. There are arguments about how to save Tmbldn but no polemics about fixing public education itself. Exit Strategy serves as a reminder, not a policy superglue. It’s everyone’s responsibility to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Holter excels at setting off verbal and emotional fireworks among his colorful, if borderline, stereotypes. Each is a lighted fuse of some sort, with fiery arias for enunciating their reactions to what’s going on in vivid, frequently profane, and often funny language. So many harsh truths are spoken people constantly preface them with “ADR . . . ” (all due respect).
Exit Strategy opens in the office of the young, gay, stammering vice-principal, Ricky (Ryan Spahn, convincingly milquetoast until the worm turns), with an explosive scene between him and a furious middle-aged teacher named Pam (Deirdre Madigan, memorably fierce). It ends with Pam’s shocking “exit strategy” response to the news that the school is going to close.
The action shifts to the shabby teachers’ lounge (Andrew Boyce’s naturalistic sets are perfect) where we meet the ethnically diverse faculty: Arnold, white; the African-American Sadie (Aimé Donna Kelly, vibrantly sassy), anxious to save the school; the Latino Luce (Rey Lucas, coolly streetwise), Ricky’s boyfriend; and the Latina Jania (Christina Nieves), a hot tamale with sauce to spare, whose pessimism about saving Tmbldn is based on her experiences at another school. Everything’s straightforwardly naturalistic, if a bit exaggerated; at one point, though, the writing makes its sole serious misstep with a clumsy detour into magic realism territory as a way of getting into Arnold’s head.
As energetically directed for Primary Stages by Kip Fagan, with the same company he guided recently at the Philadelphia Theatre Company (a different production premiered in Chicago in 2014), an electrical current courses through the production, with its sharp blackouts and blasts of raucous music (kudos to sound designer Daniel Perelstein) marking transitions during the school year.
ADR, Exit Strategy’s not perfect but it’s good enough not to need an exit strategy of your own.
Exit Strategy. Through May 6 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, between Bedfor and Barrow, Greenwich Village). www.cherrylanetheatre.org
Photos: James Leynse