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Plays about school tend toward the inspirational — especially if they’re about teachers bucking the system for the students’ good, or students overcoming obstacles to succeed — or the cynical, if the obstacles can’t be overcome or the system bucked. Locally, the former might be a hard sell, given Philadelphia schools’ current conditions, so it’s fitting that Chicago playwright Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy is the latter: a depressing, brutally honest but also scathingly funny portrait of a floundering inner-city school.
Fortunately, he can’t resist making this story of an overwhelmed administrator, five beleaguered teachers, and a precocious student a bit inspirational. Though all the characters can be petty, mean, and selfish, Holter and director Kip Fagan also ensure that all share a moment of redemption and grow from their experiences.
The bullshit stops here
“Stop the bullshit,” says veteran teacher Pam (Deirdre Madigan) to vice principal Ricky (Ryan Spahn), whom she calls “Vice.” “When does the Band-Aid come off?” He reveals that their crumbling school — 20 computers for 3,000 kids, a terrible graduation rate, gangs in the parking lot — is slated for demolition. Her response shocks and sets the tone for the rest of the school year, and for the play.
Concerned but divided teachers Arnold (Michael Cullen), Sadie (Aimé Donna Kelly), Luce (Rey Lucas), and Jania (Christina Nieves) grimly resolve to survive the school year, trying to give each other ADR — “All Due Respect,” as the kids say — and often failing. Then disruptive student Donnie (Brandon J. Pierce) hacks the school’s website and starts an Indiegogo campaign to buy toilet paper and— why not?— save their school.
Some teachers want Donnie’s rebellious hopefulness slapped down hard — suspension, even expulsion — but, in one of those wonderful redeeming moments, typically feckless Ricky defies them and enlists Donnie in a “Team Winning” effort to prevent the school’s closure. Suddenly, they’ve caught Donnie’s infectious energy, and a movement is born. But can they really make a difference? Realistically, ugly moments of rancor, betrayal, and self-doubt occur. No one’s a saint, yet everyone has something to offer, if they dare.
A smart, lean production
The ensemble shines as layers are probed and secrets revealed; no one is as good or bad as he or she seems. Instead, they’re all richly human, friends one day and enemies the next, crushed by despair one moment, then suddenly bolstered by renewed hope.
The Philadelphia Theatre Company’s smart, lean production features Andrew Boyce’s realistic teachers’ lounge with its pale pink and puke green cinderblock walls and worn, mismatched furniture, lit with appropriately harsh fluorescents by Thom Weaver. Jessica Pabst costumes everyone believably and distinctly, and Daniel Perelstein’s sound expertly produces not only the music of urban upheaval, but also some loud surprises.
The whole package travels from Philadelphia — we’re a tryout town again! — to New York City’s Primary Stages, taking gifted Philadelphians Kelly and Pierce with them. I’m happy for them, but NYC had better give them back.
For Dan Rottenberg’s review, click here.
For Rhonda Davis's review, click here.
What, When, Where
Exit Strategy. By Ike Holter; Kip Fagan directed. Philadelphia Theatre Company production through February 28, 2016 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. (at Lombard), Philadelphia. 215-985-0420 or PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.
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