In the opening scenes of Exit Strategy, the tale of an underserved Chicago public school slated for closure, playwright Ike Holter lets us know what kind of drama this will not be. “You’re Michelle Pfeiffering this school,” one teacher tells another, accusingly. It’s a reminder that the real world is no Dangerous Minds, no Mr. Holland’s Opus, no paradigmatic hardscrabble community awaiting an inspiring educator to parachute in with a planeload of self-empowerment.
Yet despite such protestations, Holter’s impassioned drama is in many ways about the inspiration people find in each other when the world outside offers none. Currently premiering in New York in a production directed by Kip Fagan for Primary Stages, Exit Strategy was written for Holter’s home city of Chicago, where, in 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed approximately fifty “underutilized” public schools, displacing thousands of students in primarily African-American and Latino neighborhoods and sending resources to communities that had more of them in the first place.
Holter charts the social consequences of this trauma by following a school through a single year: Tumbldn High, a crumbling institution whose low test scores and graduation rates have landed it on a list of schools to be shuttered in June. Through a series of confrontations in the teachers’ lounge — motivated by principle, but made messier by years of personal resentments, irritations, and pride — we watch the educators, administrators, and students confront the pressing question of whether to fight for Tumbldn or accept its destruction as a fait accompli. (The lounge itself, in Andrew Boyce’s thoughtful set, is shabby in all the familiar ways: grimy windows, tiles in institutional shades of green.) Should the teachers walk out in protest, and risk failure, plus repercussions from their union, or do nothing, and let the doors close on the last day?
Sadie (Aimé Donna Kelly), sunny and optimistic, anxious to do right by the students, spars with Jania (Christina Nieves), who’s lived through a previous school closure and advocates personal survival at all costs. Vice principal Ricky (Ryan Spahn), a shrinking white dude in skinny ties, paces the linoleum hallways, desperate for sympathy and trying not to blame himself for staff layoffs. The darkest response comes from veteran teacher Pam (Deirdre Madigan), who decides that if her school is condemned to death, she’ll condemn herself too. Her abrupt self-destruction, early in the play, transforms her from prickly educator to martyr, her specter returning (sometimes literally) to haunt the others, especially her old flame, fellow teacher Arnold (Michael Cullen).
The simmering anxiety at Tumbldn explodes when a brave student, Donnie (Brandon J. Pierce), decides to take his school’s plight public, forcing the adults around him to choose sides.
By all accounts, Exit Strategy spoke particularly poignantly to Chicago audiences. But the moving ode to education will feel familiar to New Yorkers as well. So will the form, a panoramic social drama in which an institution serves as a microcosm of social ills. The play’s closest local counterpart, perhaps, is writer-performer Nilaja Sun’s 2006 No Child… — an award-winning solo piece about Sun’s experience as a teaching artist in Bronx public schools — which used the tale of one classroom to examine broken educational policies and the students these systems betray. But Holter instead explores the community’s sticky, conflicted attachment to the school itself. (In probing the ways that even flawed institutions hold people together, Exit Strategy also brings to mind Heidi Schreck’s 2014 Grand Concourse, the story of a Bronx soup kitchen, which Fagan also directed.)
Such emotional force is also where, theatrically, Exit Strategy occasionally falters. Holter works hard to soften this disquieting tale with humor, sometimes to a fault: The characters tease one another relentlessly and find irony in the disaster at every turn. When they’re not needling each other, they’re screaming; the concatenation of outbursts captures the panic of a community near collapse but starts to feel like a broken record. And the cast of characters Holter imagines feels, even at its ugliest, a little too tidied-up (Donnie, especially, is ceaselessly heroic).
But it’s to Holter’s credit that he doesn’t try to find redemption for Tumbldn itself. He withholds a happy ending, reminding us that systemic failures are rarely reversible — and that the parachute rarely opens in the end.
Directed by Kip Fagan
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street