In Ike Holter’s EXIT STRATEGY, the latest offering of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, we plunge head first into a Chicago inner city school where you know the going will be tough. Disgruntled, weed smoking students (and maybe a gang or two), overworked and underappreciated teachers and a school administration close to yet another nervous breakdown, does not a Utopia make. A good local reference might be a visit to one of Philadelphia’s inner schools just as classes are letting out. It’s doubtful whether the cacophony of screaming adolescent voices filling the air will make you want to hang around.
The play opens with school principal, Ricky (Ryan Spahn), a hypersensitive eager-to-please boy-man, having a contentious chat with a gruff, no-nonsense fellow faculty member, Pam (Deirdre Madigan). Their repartee has all the elements of a fencing match. The tough talking Pam has been at the school forever, but underneath her armadillo exterior there’s a teddy bear. This is something that Ricky, her polar opposite, appreciates despite his indecisive, nervous fidgeting. Both have a vested interest in saving the school, which is slated for demolition because of its age and the fact that its students are the opposite of exceptional. Even the City of Chicago has no interest in saving this dilapidated mess.
After Pam’s meeting with Ricky in the principal’s office, she goes into her own office and shoots herself. The sound of the gun going off is shocking, like witnessing an anchorman on live TV putting a gun to his mouth, only (thank God) we don’t witness Pam’s demise. It’s also unclear for a time just what happened: Was Pam shot by a stray bullet fired by student thugs? Like a malevolent energy form in a Stephen King novel, the school seems heavy with bad vibes, dispensing overwork, stress and worry about the future to each member of the faculty. This play could be about people who don’t know that they are in hell.
Spahn and Madigan are fascinating to watch in the first scene, but their time together on stage is far too short. It helps a little when Pam reappears as a ghost even if her ghost has little of her earthly personality.
How to save the school from inevitable destruction becomes the question of the day. While the young faculty members debate whether the school can be saved, Ricky knows what must be done after he’s forced to discipline a student, Donnie (Brandon J. Pierce), whose thug like demeanor seems at odds with his passionate desire to keep the school open. Donnie, however, is not one to be disciplined. We see this as he ramps up the “in your face” antennae and unleashes a string of invectives to the shocked but soon- to- be reborn Ricky, who needs this crisis in order to reinvent himself. When this happens, the fidgety principal de-shells and becomes the voice of Revolution, appointing Donnie as his assistant in a campaign to save the school. With rhetoric and fists flying, the formerly shy nerd calls for a massive 1960s style downtown demonstration to win public support.
As the homegrown revolutionaries build castles in the air, an exhausted older faculty activist, Arnold, (Michael Cullen), who has seen demonstrations come and go, calls Ricky’s plan a hopeless dream and predicts its failure. Here the sitcom nature of the action on stage comes together in a kaleidoscope of contrived extremes. Ricky, who is gay and having an affair with the macho Latino teacher, Luce (Rey Kucas) changes after Donnie’s outburst from a submissive bottom gummy bear who allows Luce to call every shot, into a Chicago Rite Che determined to reverse the course of events. In his new found ideological narcissism, Ricky also ends the affair with Luce, although he never really had that much interest in him anyway.
Stereotypes often evoke central truths, and in EXIT STRATEGY we get more contrived situations, such as the lone African American teacher, Sadie, adequately portrayed by Aime Donna Kelly, who really hungers for a revolution despite her earlier complaints of being forced to work overlong hours at the expense of her personal life. The saucy Latina teacher, Jania (Christina Nieves), who has some of the funniest lines in the play, is often paired with Luce as a kind of Hispanic comedy team. Together their accent zingers fly out into the audience like locusts in a Brigham Young dream.
In many ways, EXIT STRATEGY has all the best elements of an After School Special. Still, we can’t help but to watch and pay attention. There are some very funny lines. And in the end we get to experience the empty pathos around a building demolition in which the faculty come together ostensibly to mourn their old school but instead wind up mourning the people they once were.
[Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street] January 29-February 28, 2016, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.