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A CurtainUp Review
Exit Strategy

They're closing the school. The end of the year. Low test scores, unfavorable conditions. . . No way around it. Locks on the doors, day after the last day of school, it's done, it's set, it's structured, irreversible. It's over.
— Ricky, the 30-year-old, vice-principal of a large, poorly funded and performing Chicago high school, to veteran teacher Pam.
Exit Strategy
(from left) Michael Cullen, Ryan Spahn, Aime Donna Kelly, Rey Lucas, Christina Nieves. (Photo: James Leynse).
For Pam, the the acerbic teacher being told of the imminent closing and demolition of Tumbldn, the crumbling Chicago high school where she's taught for 23 years, is the final blow to a life full of devastating blows (widowhood, alienated children, undesirable living quarters). The title of Ike Holter's compelling play refers to the tactics by Pam and other staffers to make it through their terminally ill school's last year. The school's name is fictional, as are the characters, but the situation is all too real.

Since he's a Chicagoan, Mr. Holter has set his play in Chicago where it also premiered. (Actually his previous play reviewed at Curtainup Hit the Wall was about New York's Stonewall riots and was set in Manhattan). At any rate, the story he tells is not unique to his fictional yet all too real school, nor is it particular to Chicago. No wonder it resonated with audiences in Philadelphia which has its own share of troubled schools to confirm the distressing failure of our educational system.

New Yorkers now seeing that Philadelphia production as part of Primary Stages' season at its home at the Cherry Lane Theater, will also see many counterparts. And those counterparts begin at the grade school level.

Does all this sound like a polemic about one of America's major unresolved social issues masquerading as a play? It is. . . a little. But while Exit Strategy explores the painful effect of inner city schools populated mostly by poor African-American, Latino and immigrant students, Mr. Holter is not a preacher but a playwright— fortunately, like many other Chicago scribes, quite a good one. And so he has ably imbued this tragic situation with humor and dramatic heft.

Mr. Holter's strategy for making his play entertaining as well as provocative is to create an authentic group portrait. That portrait includes a fully developed, diverse group of characters whose dialogue is often as funny as it is poignant.

The plot is structured to take us through the doomed Tumbldn's last hurrah as a functioning entity. The year's events are book-ended by a funny but ultimately shocking prologue and a contemplative epilogue.

It helps that the actors playing the five teachers, their frazzled young vice-principal and a rebellious but dynamic senior student all emerge as well-drawn, believable individuals. And Kip Fagan's steady direction insures that the events of Tumbldn's final year unfold with sufficient tension and speed.

Except for the prologue and the epilogue, everything plays out in the spartan teachers'lounge (the set shifts fluidly arranged by set designer Andrew Boyce — and the staging overall further supported by Jessica Pabst's costumes, Thom Weaver's lighting and Daniel Perelstein's propulsive between scenes music). Here we follow the staff's see-sawing between mutual support and disagreements, deep despair and burgeoning hope. The post-prologue-summer-vacation introduces us to the rest of the faculty.

Arnold (Michael Cullen) is, like the already met Pam, a dedicated but jaded old-school type. Sadie (Aime Donna Kelly) is an assertive African American teacher in her thirties who still believes in the power of tough love teaching.

The two youngest teachers, Luce (Ray Lucas) and Jania (Christina Nives), are both Latinos. Luce is a math teacher whose affectionate support for the increasingly discombobulated Ricky reveals a not so well-kept secret and temporarily moves into over-the-top farcical territory. Jania (Christina Nieves), is the Special Ed teacher who translates all announcements into Spanish. A veteran of previous jobs in failed schools (the last one in a school that was razed to the ground with the books still on the library shelves), she's the group's super realist. Her advice is to stop trying to be the students'supportive friend and instead pass out job applications instead of raising false American Dream hopes by passing out student loan submission forms.

As it turns out, the real game changer, the one character to shift the pervading aura of helplessness, is Donnie (Brandon J. Pierce). An aggressively pro-active senior, he's transferred the school website into a Kickstarter campaign to support a campaign to save the place. Faced with expulsion, as recommended by Sadie, he manages to persuade Ricky to support rather than suspend him. What follows not only empowers Rick but allows a ray of hope to penetrate the pervasive gloom.

Though the entire cast admirably portrays characters who could easily be sit-comish stereotypes, the performances likely stay with you the most come from the two older characters and the youngest one. Madigan and Cullen movingly portray the older white teachers. Seeing the neighborhood, and with it their school, "turn all black and brown" without the needed resources to help students succeed has made them cynical, though they still love the school . Pierce's rebellious, Donnie energizes Ricky and the teachers, and also pulls in the audience.

I'll leave it to you to find out whether the team spirit Donnie rouses will make a final exit strategy unnecessary. Despite an unavoidable tendency to come off as an inspirational message play, the smartly staged and well-acted Exit Strategy is well worth a trip to the West Village.

Exit Strategy by Ike Holter
Directed by Kip Fagan
Cast: Michael Cullen (Arnold), Aimá Donna Kelly (Sadie), Rey Lucas (Luce), Deirdre Madigan (Pam), Christina Nieves (Jania), Brandon J. Pierce (Donnie), Ryan Spahn (Ricky)
Scenic design by Andrew Boyce
Costume design by Jessica Pabst
Lighting design by Thom Weaver
Sound design by Daniel Perelstein
Stage Manager: Laura Wilson
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre 38 Commerce Street,
From 3/30/16; opening 4/12/16; closing 5/06/16.
Reviewed by Elyse sommer at 4/09/16 press preview
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