“You look poor as hell. Congratulations, you look like a teacher,” says an educator to a tightly-wound administrator in Ike Holter’s new play EXIT STRATEGY. Indeed, the investment put into teaching at this Chicago public school may not meet much return in an outsider’s eye—one teacher is in such dire straits she has a plastic bag for a car window. Compassion for disadvantaged youth and the hope for a better future keeps the staff members’ heads above water. The teachers in Holter’s raw, gritty comedy-drama toil thanklessly on a day-to-day basis, donating their income and free time back into the school. However, it all seems for naught when the city of Chicago deems this the last academic year before the bulldozers come.
Holter’s play calls out and subverts the “inspirational white teacher” motif in popular culture—occurring in films like Freedom Writers, for example—because EXIT STRATEGY avoids the Hollywoodization of the decay of America’s public school system. It’s real, and in real life, the underdog sometimes doesn’t win. It is charged with anger, demanding justice from a cold, bureaucratic political system.
After the loss of the school’s scary yet beloved teacher, Pam (sardonically imagined by the blunt and hilarious Deirdre Madigan), other teachers accept their fate, not even seeking other work. One teacher, Jania (Christina Nieves), has fought and lost before—hope seems lost. After a student activist-hacker directs the school website to an Indegogo campaign to help the school afford bare necessities like toilet paper, vice principal Ricky (Ryan Spahn) rallies faculty and students alike to protest the city government. But as noble as Ricky’s intentions may seem, they are taken with a grain of salt. He is certainly transformed by his peers, but after all, he is merely one white guy who naively thinks his actions will be the first to work, and that he will be the first person to truly make a difference.
The bulk of the play takes place in the dingy teacher’s lounge, in which set designer Andrew Boyce includes stained walls and sickly yellowish lighting. Over the character’s heads, a poster reminds them to “Wrong Wrong, and Right Right.”
Holter’s dialogue is fresh, hilarious, and contemporary as can be—he may alienate older audience members with his frequent use of millennial terminology and mile-a-minute swearing, but hopefully at the benefit of attracting younger patrons. There is not a weak link in this ensemble; each cast member delivers nuanced, hilarious and heartfelt performances. Some line flubs were interspersed here and there, but hopefully that was merely the result of opening night jitters.
EXIT STRATEGY straddles the line between political and personal drama, and sometimes falls more on the side of naturalistic character study than call-to-action propaganda. This makes the play enjoyable to watch but leaves you asking “What now?” Surely Holter is not trying to make the audience feel empowered—as we see downtrodden people fight to improve their lives but are crushed underfoot by the boot of the system, we are merely angry. One brush with the supernatural almost shifts the play to the other end of the spectrum, but unfortunately that scene does not start the domino effect it seems to promise. So, while EXIT STRATEGY is an entertaining ninety minutes, don’t come expecting solutions to the the problems it addresses.
[Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street] January 29-February 28, 2016, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.