Hope and destruction come to a crossroads in Exit Strategy, an East coast premiere in association with Primary Stages now playing at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Although the setting of Ike Holter’s challenging new play is his native Chicago, the budgetary bulldozing of an inner city school feels all too familiar for Philadelphia audiences.
Exit Strategy begins ominously with a struggling high school receiving its much-dreaded closure notice, leaving them one final academic year before the doors are locked forever. Delivering a wrecking ball of an opening scene, Ryan Spahn (Ricky) and Deirdre Madigan (Pam) spar with such agility, it may take a minute to acclimate. But soon after, one tragedy comes hard on the heels of another and the aftershock falls to the administration, an awkward but invigorating Spahn, and his faculty, played by Michael Cullen, Aimé Donna Kelly, Rey Lucas, and Christine Nieves. While there are moments when these teachers slide into broad illustrations of themselves, overall each packs a powerful punch and a dynamic chemistry that contributes to a knockout ensemble cast.
The task at hand is to either accept their fate or rally to action, with the help of a courageously misguided student, played with an infectious charisma by Brandon J. Pierce. Holter goes on to investigate the uncomfortable truths of not only being a teacher in a school that the city has given up on, but also a student in that environment with the daily reminder of, “You’re not special.”
Holter’s setup is, in the best of ways, a call to arms. Even if a crumbling school system is not one’s personal cause, the variety of tools he uses will not fail to inspire, whether through sheer anger, pure vitality, or bittersweet idealism. His belief in both the utter brutality and joyful potential of these negotiations is clear. The natural impulse in an educational setting like this is to draw a hard line between the generations, which does happen at times. But beyond those standoffs, the play treats each with their own dignity, allowing the old school of thought and the next generation to share equally in their flaws as well as their assets.
Director Kip Fagan guides the production with a keen eye, utilizing a familiarly claustrophobic physicality and a style that is deafening both in its cacophonies and its silences. Scenic Designer Andrew Boyce creates an environment so detailed you can almost smell the burnt coffee, complete with stained walls and broken chairs, highlighted by Thom Weaver’s appropriately dreary lighting design. Daniel Perelstein contributes a startling and chaotic sound design reminiscent of high school hallways between class periods.
More than anything, this production feels beautifully dangerous, deeply felt in each shocking discovery and in the handling of Holter’s distinctive text. The few truly didactic moments are balanced by a searing treatment of how we view failure, and then how we try to “correct” it, with a sympathy for those left behind once the walls are torn down. Although the outlook may be bleak, Exit Strategy challenges and inspires, questioning what’s worth fighting for and how to lead that fight.
Running Time: One hour and forty minutes, with no intermission.
Exit Strategy plays through Sunday, February 28, 2016 at Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre – 400-26 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 985-0420, or purchase them online.