Ike Holter's drama about the closure of a Chicago public school runs at Zeitgeist Stage.
With the installation of the current presidential administration has come a chilling relevance to works of art, including nearly every production to play Boston since Election Day. One need not look too deep to feel the ache that comes from seeing our times reflected onstage. Such is true of Ike Holter's Exit Strategy, an enjoyable but unfocused drama about the closure of an underperforming and underfunded Chicago public high school.
The school is Tumbldn, which is overrun with gang activity and boasts a graduation rate of only 40 percent. Exit Strategy opens just as the school's final year is about to begin and the spineless, stammering vice principal, Ricky, is tasked with breaking the news to the staff. (Ricky is played with admirable vitality by Matthew Fagerberg). The news is broken first to Pam (a delicious Maureen Adduci), a snarling crab of a teacher with 23 years of teaching under her belt. Pam isn't at all surprised, and remarks that "even the paint's trying to run away from this place." She's got a contingency plan, though — a second act — and encourages Ricky to formulate the same. (Her suggestions to him? Telemarketing or porn.) Pam commits suicide in her classroom moments later. While this starts the play off with a double layer of tragedy, it immediately makes the work feel a bit too implausible and melodramatic for its otherwise realistic premise.
We meet four other instructors in the teacher's lounge, where the play almost exclusively takes place, as they are preparing for an assembly to address both the school's closing and Pam's death. Arnold (Robert Bonotto), Jania (Victoria George), Sadie (Lillian Gomes), and Luce (a terrific Johnny Luis Quinones). Ricky tries to insert himself into the proceedings but he is largely disliked by the group of teachers who harbor animosity toward him for not standing by the teachers last time they went on strike and for not doing enough to fight the closure of the school.
Exit Strategy gets a desperately needed jolt with the arrival of Donnie (Jalani Dottin-Coye), a passionate student who has been summoned to the teacher's lounge after he hacked the school's website and had it rerouted to an Indiegogo to raise money for school supplies. The pressure is on Ricky to suspend Donnie, but he is instead inspired by the boy's passionate zest and forms "Team Winning" in an effort to energize the school and fight back against the impending closure. He puts Donnie in charge of social media and hopes that by marching into whiter, more affluent neighborhoods, they'll get picked up by the evening news. But is it too little, too late?
While little of the convolution of Exit Strategy's plot rings true, Fagerberg's transformation from wimpy passivity to emboldened warrior is a major feat. And although there is much to admire about Holter's writing, especially his gift for dialogue, the play is devoid of likable characters.
And fine though the cast is, most of the characters are filled out with broad strokes that make it impossible to really invest in their stories. Fagerberg is exceptional, as is Quinones, who embodies Luce with both infectious enthusiasm and, later, tender pathos. Shining the brightest, though, is Dottin-Coye, who demonstrates sincere depth and winning verve.
In addition to directing the production, Zeitgeist founding artistic director David J. Miller has also handily designed the set. (Michael Clark Wonson's lighting design and Matthew Good's sound design are both affective assets.) Miller's direction is affectionate, though the play unfolds at an occasionally sluggish pace that does little to compensate for the script's flaws. There is also a high-octane frenzy to most of the scenes that make it a challenge to separate the significant from the mundane.
Exit Strategy ends with a moving tableau that leaves Donnie alone with his uncertain future and his hope lost somewhere among the rubble. It is a gripping reminder of the perils that come when we turn our backs to our children, but it also leaves us with the assurance that no matter what happens, it will be the children who are capable of standing until the end, with an eye cast straight to the future.