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Exit Strategy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Deirdre Madigan
Photo by James Leynse

The walls are decrepit. The cinder-block walls look ancient. The flickering fluorescent lighting doesn't really illuminate anything—at least not anything worth looking at. And yet, within its walls, Tumbldn High School is a vibrant, vital house of learning. Right? Maybe not. Like so much on Chicago's South Side, it's fallen on hard times, and its diminishing spirits have suppressed the life force of all those within its walls. If it's ever a good thing that teachers and students seem inseparable from their school, in Kip Fagan's Primary Stages production of Ike Holter's play Exit Strategy, which is running at the Cherry Lane Theatre through May 6, it's a death sentence.

Not a literal death sentence, mind you. (Well, er, not exactly.) But it is a jolting reminder of the tenuous boundaries that exist between where we are and who we are, which, not coincidentally, is Holter's general theme. His specific—and far less sharply carved—message is, you guessed it, about education, and Exit Strategy, which premiered at the Jackalope Theatre Company in Chicago in 2014 was written in response to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel's decision to close dozens of the city's schools. What does it feel like to be on the wrong side of the literal bulldozer that's mere seconds away from razing your dreams for a brighter future?

That's a good question, but one that gets considerably less compelling the more directly Holter addresses it. He's at the top of his game in the opening scene, when milquetoast vice principal Ricky (Ryan Spahn) must deliver the news of Tumbldn's shuddering to its three-decade dragon-lady teacher, Pam (Deirdre Madigan). She has no illusions of what this development means to her or the students, and isn't afraid to express her feelings, which lets Holter unleash through her a vivid string of urban poetry that beautifully captures the state of an anguished mind in freefall. (It's also liberally peppered with expletives that shouldn't be printed here.)

"Nothing shocks me," Pam spits. "Forty percent of our seniors graduated last year, Vice. One could say that I had a feeling. There's a gang that operates out of that 7-11 on the corner, they knock into me when I'm picking up smokes. Sure, I had an inkling. There are 20 computers. For 3,000 kids. Leaks. Holes. Even the paint's trying to run away from this place, Vice, even the paint. Nobody's having a good time."

This contest of wills, between the disrespected administrator and the front-lines sergeant, draws the battle lines that will be in play for the full 90-minute evening, while reminding you that—whatever their backgrounds—they are on the same side. And by establishing the opposing poles of the conflict right out of the gate, that leaves Holter well upwards of an hour to explore whether, in this kind of situation, it's preferable to go down quietly or to go down swinging.

Ryan Spahn and Christina Nieves
Photo by James Leynse

Unfortunately, Pam all but disappears after the opening scene, which requires Holter to reorient himself and us the instant we're sure we know the rules. It's challenging to pull of this kind of bait-and-switch anyway, but it's made more difficult because none of Holter's other creations are as raw or unapologetically affecting as Pam. We meet the new crew in the second scene: white teacher Arnold (Michael Cullen), another old-timer; the African-American firebrand Sadie (Aimé Donna Kelly); the Hispanic Luce (Rey Lucas), a go-along-to-get-along bro; and Jania (Christina Nieves), a Latina for whom the tragedy of the streets was once an all-too-clear reality. In other words, the expected collection of representatives of the interested parties, minus only a troubled student who needs the school to be all he can be—oh wait, he's here, too, in the person of the hard-edged, motormouthed Donnie (Brandon J. Pierce).

What follows is a predictable travelogue through the final nine months of Tumbldn's existence, with major stops at the group's internal friction (there are a couple of deeply divided factions, and a minimum of one illicit affair), clashing viewpoints on both the immediate and distant futures, activism in the form of a protest march ("If there's one thing people don't like," its surprise organizer reveals, "it's a big happy mob of color coming right towards them"), and other such box-checking waypoints. But the intimate relationship between the cause and those downstream of it is utterly lost; talking points are a central focus of the dialogue after the opening scene, in which they're the razor-honed catalyst, and they're nowhere near as potent, and not anything that Fagan, despite his aggressive staging, can make exciting.

Holter's writing still occasionally thrills; in a class of its own, for example, is Sadie's angsty, time-killing rant as the march is in its planning stages: "I ain’t having it. It is almost 9:30. On a Thursday. And we are still at school. I ain’t havin' it. I need to go home I need to rest up I need to sleep but now, for the last twenty minutes I’ve been waiting here for an administrator who has shown me nothing but disrespect, while our school runs through fads, while I’m told to google this and indie-ho-ho that, excuse me but no, no, I don’t ho-ho for nobody but nobody, no I ain’t havin it' I ain’t snacking on it I’m not about this." And a late-show fencing match of insults is good for its self-consciously over-the-top approach at defining the nebulous bond between two otherwise loosely connected characters.

But aside from Pam and to a lesser degree Ricky, the characters are sparklingly dull, which doesn't aid the actors in making them three-dimensional. Madigan is terrific as Pam, layering a lacerating coarseness on top of real pain, and Spahn effectively depicts Ricky's struggle to fit in where he doesn't belong. The other portrayals are all professional if unmemorable, hampered by the material that keeps too much of their humanity under wraps; Andrew Boyce's set, Jessica Pabst's costumes, and Thom Weaver's lights do a better job of communicating what's at stake at every stage of Tumbldn's wind-down.

This ensures that the school is a crucial character, and that's no small achievement from either the designers or Fagan. Ideally, though, it would be one voice among many, not a presence so overwhelming that it reads as far bigger than anyone within its walls. This disconnect is not the point of Exit Strategy, and prevents the play from packing the chest-crushing punch it so obviously wants to unload. We can relate, but only externally—and that's not enough. If you attend or work at a school, you might well love it with all your heart. But if you don't, an hour and a half of bland pontificating isn't enough to kindle a romance.

Exit Strategy
Through May 6
Cherry Lane Theatre, 8 Commerce Street off 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Bleecker
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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