Playwright Ike Holter’s contemporary one-act production, Exit Strategy, follows a year in the life of a dilapidated South Side of Chicago public high school, aptly named Tumbldn, as five teachers, a vice principal and one high school senior confront the school’s proposed demolition. It’s an intense drama, well directed by Aurora’s new artistic director, Josh Costello, with excellent acting. Exit Strategy’s best moments are in its exploration of the dismal state of inner-city public schools. The play could have benefited from subtler writing and sharper character development, however.
Tumbldn High School is underfunded, rat-infested and falling apart. It’s been ignored for years by the city’s powers-that-be, like an embarrassing second cousin. The realistically dismal teachers’ lounge (Set Designer, Kate Boyd) is the single set for the production.
The play begins with a sardonically amusing scene between the dedicated but world-weary veteran teacher Pam (Margo Hall, Trouble In Mind, Cal Shakes’ A Raisin in the Sun) and the younger tie-sporting milquetoast vice principal, Ricky (Adam Niemann). It seems that Ricky, the only white faculty member, would prefer eating ground glass than to have to tell Pam that the school is closing. But Pam saw the shutdown coming. “Forty percent of our seniors graduated last year,” she says with piquancy. “One could say that I had a feeling.” Yet, despite her carefully applied nonchalance, Pam has an intense, unexpected reaction to the news.
The teachers, except for Arnold (Michael J. Asberry, Satellites), want to fight the school shuttering. Arnold has been around the block like Pam, and with Pam for that matter, but there is no fight left in him at all. Teachers Sadie (Sam Jackson, Splendour), Luce (Ed Gonzalez Moreno), and Jania (Gabriella Fanuele), on the other hand, are catapulted into action by bright, dynamic student Donnie (exceptional Tre’Vonne Bell, Kill Move Paradise at Shotgun Players).
Donnie hacked into the school website and changed it into a Kickstarter-like page to raise funds to save the school. Sent to Vice Principal Ricky for discipline, Donnie explains to Ricky the reality of life in failing schools, in which he had to request individual sheets of toilet paper from his teachers since there was never enough.
Ricky then has a sudden change of heart and appoints Donnie as a “creative associate” for “Team Winning,” a group Ricky forms sua sponte to help garner media support for Tumbldn. His newfound zeal seemed a bit too maniacal and too dissimilar from his prior nervous and diffident behavior.
Team Winning’s unrealistic but clever idea is to have the students march, not to the Board of Education, but to a high-performing high school on the North Side of Chicago. And ultimately, the march is a success. Whether it will be outcome determinative is another matter.
Exit Strategy is a tough, absorbing, and dynamic play with a vital message that should resonate throughout our country.
Exit Strategy is playing at the Aurora Theatre through September 29th. Tickets range from $35 to $70. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Aurora Theatre online.