Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's review of Harvey
Exit Strategy begins just as one Chicago public school is slated to close its doors for good. Over the course of the play we see how a group of committed teachers, a young administrator, and one gifted student respond to and cope with the impending closure. Inadequate funding of public schools in low income areas and the paucity of public interest in the students who attend those schools are themes that loom large throughout.
Ike Holter's dialogue is snappy, funny, and impressively authentic. It is no small compliment when I say that the scenes in the teachers' lounge could have come straight from Season 4 of "The Wire." The strong ensemble cast makes the most of the excellent material Holter has given them. Sadie (Aimé Donna Kelly), Luce (Rey Lucas), and Jania (Christina Nieves) are excellent as the younger teachers in the group. Their scenes together are captivating and Nieves in particular is a pleasure to watch. Arnold (Michael Cullen) and Pam (Deirdre Madigan) both give powerful performances as the veteran educators. But perhaps the strongest performance of the night comes from Brandon J. Pierce as Donnie, a senior at the soon to be defunct school. Pierce's monologue about the practical impact of extreme resource limitations in schools is unforgettable.
Ryan Spahn plays the painfully awkward Assistant Principal Ricky. Spahn crafts a believably complicated and conflicted character, but the rapid shifts in attitude Ricky undergoes would make any actor's head spin. With one minor and frankly unsurprising revelation, Ricky goes from empowered to despondent. Other characters undergo similarly jarring, if less significant transitions. It seems like some relatively minor changes in the script would alleviate these problems and ensure that the play remains fast paced without being jarring or difficult to follow.
Holter's script has another flaw which might prove more difficult to fix. For all of the excellent insight into the impact underfunded schools have on students, Exit Strategy does not really discuss the negative impact of school closures or the corrupt political ideology behind them. The audience is left to wonder whether the school closure is actually such a bad thing from the students perspective. As a result, the central crisis of the play does not engender a sense of outrage or righteous indignation in the audience. This isn't just a missed opportunity to raise a significant social issue, it is a missed opportunity to get the audience emotionally involved in the action.
Despite these problems, Exit Strategy is a persuasive play that offers a unique perspective on an issue of vital importance. Holter is a remarkable talent whose gift for writing dialogue makes the 90-minute run time fly by. Anyone who is interested in social justice, education or new literary talent should not miss the chance to see this production before it moves to Primary Stages in New York City.
Exit Strategy runs through February 28th, 2016, at Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets in Center City Philadelphia. For tickets call (215) 985-0420 or visit PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.