By David Finkle
Since Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy, a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane, takes place in a foundering Chicago high school called Tumbldn, you wouldn’t be surprised to encounter at least a few students dealing with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. But in his cast of characters Holter only includes one student, Donnie (Brandon J. Pierce), who does fit the profile.
The rest are teachers Arnold (Michael Cullen), Pam (Deirdre Madigan,) Sadie (Aimé Donna Kelly), Luce (Rey Lucas), Jania (Christina Nieves) and assistant principal Ricky (Ryan Spahn), and the disturbing shock of Exit Strategy is that every one of these mentors appears to have come down with severe cases of A. D. H. D. As written by Holter and directed by Kip Fagan, this aggregate is in sore need of Ritalin–and pronto.
I mention this because Exit Strategy–Chicago-born Holter’s response to recent and deeply disturbing education developments in his hometown (the play was first presented there by the Jackalope Theatre Company in 2014)–looks at something of extreme importance in contemporary America life: failing education. But the manner by which he chooses to handle it doesn’t impress as anywhere near ideal.
It’s completely understandable that dramatist Holter wouldn’t want to deliver a screed on the subject, and it also makes sense that he’d want to lighten the dramatic atmosphere on the old theory that more flies are caught with honey than vinegar.
But in the instance of something like Exit Strategy, the Duracell-Rabbit energy pulsing through it introduces a problem of tone that, for me at any rate, ultimately throws Holter’s contents off balance. It’s difficult to sympathize with the dire problems these teachers are confronting during the circus-clowns-emerging-from-a-tiny-car routines they frequently deliver. It’s as if they’re participating in an on-steroids Welcome Back, Kotter sitcom retread.
Exit Strategy begins at that level with furious and acerbic teacher Pam attacking–nothing less than that–fumfering assistant principal Ricky for his failing to take the crucial steps needed to get Tumbldn from being locked down at the end of the school year just getting underway.
When she’s finished throwing her verbal hand grenades and Ricky, who always wears a tie, has barely risen to any defense, the scene–and Andrew Boyce’s totally convincing institutional set–shifts to the teacher’s room on the first school-year day where Arnold, Luce, Sadie and Jania discuss Pam’s rather drastic removal of herself from the school roster.
They then go on to bicker among themselves over personal matters with the occasional detour into mooting strategies for saving Tumbldn from the literal wrecking ball. (By the way, are there no other teachers on the discombobulated faulty? Oh well, never mind–cutback budgets, you know.)
Along in there, Donnie, an impressively articulate senior who’s set out to do his own rescuing but by questionable means, becomes part of the bigger plan. Although it’s fallen to Ricky to expel the proactive lad, fast-talking Donnie not only defuses stammering Ricky but recruits him as a co-conspirator and perhaps Ritalin-needy convert. (Where, by the way, is the Tumbldn principal–or even any mention of him or her?)
This last teacher-student plot twist does fly in the face of astonished credulity, and it’s not the only script turn that does. With Holter shaping Sadie as a fast-talking spark plug, Jania as a foul-mouthed Vassar alumna and Arnold as silently grieving over the departed Pam, he gives Luce a pleasant conciliatory demeanor and soon enough reveals that Ricky and Luce have been carrying on a clandestine love affair. Really? Those two? Not likely.
In another writer’s stretch, he pulls a funny one involving Pam. Because she so thoroughly takes the first scene by storm, Holter realizes her further absence from the action could be a detriment. What does he do about that? In one sequence he brings her back as Arnold’s tormenting inner voice. Unfortunately, the device is too obvious be anything more than clumsy.
Be aware, though, that the gravity of Holter’s subject matter is too pressing. It stops anyone watching the drama to dismiss it entirely. Indeed, from time to time the tragedy Chicago is undergoing–one currently being repeated across the country, of course–is delineated in a speech during which hard facts are underlined. At one point Jania, who’s already been shuttled out of two previous doomed schools, insists to the others that if they secure new positions, eventually losing them and the schools offering them is only a matter of time.
By the way, the high-decibel performances asked of the cast members aren’t their responsibility. To a man and woman, they give their all and then some, undoubtedly as coaxed by director Fagan. When they’re meant to be funny, rightly or wrongly, they absolutely are.
And Holter–holding true to his motivation for taking up the cudgel, also whether executed rightly and wrongly–manages intermittently to fight the good fight. As the denouement approaches, he provides a scene occurring the day after the school year finishes. No need to describe it in detail. It’s enough to say it includes all the characters standing before a chain link fence. Yes, Pam joins them.
The picture of the astonished, speechless faculty members is accompanied by a devastating sound effect that designer Daniel Perelstein unleashes. Once and for all, the deafening blare drives Holter’s critical point home. Audiences won’t be chuckling then–and for the right reasons.
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