By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
It's a rare play that can entertain you and outrage you simultaneously, but that's just what Exit Strategy does. Philadelphia Theatre Company's fierce and funny East Coast premiere of Ike Holter's terrific play, an indictment of the collapse of the Chicago school system, is as relevant here as it is there: urban children—and their teachers-- have been betrayed.
Scene one is a meeting in the young, timid principle's office; Ricky (Ryan Spahn) is trying to warn tough-minded, tough-talking Pam (Deirdre Madigan) that she needs an "exit strategy" because the school she has taught in for twenty-two years, a school she loves more than her own life, is doomed. "Sad times in suck city. Boo hoo hoo." This is not a sentimental play.
Cut to a dilapidated teachers' room for a welcome-back-from-the-summer greeting. Meet the faculty: Jania (Christina Nieves) is the Latina Special-Ed teacher who translates all announcements into Spanish for the student body, and who remembers when her last school's library was razed with the books still inside. Sadie (Aime Donna Kelly) is the sexy African American teacher who takes no crap from anybody. Arnold (Michael Cullen) is an old-school schoolteacher, fed up with it all. Luce (Rey Lucas) is Ricky's secret lover (secret? Really?).
Enter Donnie (Brandon J. Pierce), a should-be graduating senior who tries to save the day by hacking into the school's computer system to create a kickstarter; he remembers what it was like as a little kid to have to beg one piece of toilet paper from the teacher in order to go to the bathroom. He is smart and "uppity" ("I'm allowed to say that," says Sadie, "you're not").
They decide to organize an enormous protest—this is boots-on-the-ground politics ("grass roots" seems a ridiculous phrase in this dire urban context where "nobody cares, nobody listens"), although hope is a bulldozed commodity here. ADR (all due respect) to our children is the point—not only the "respect" part, but the "due" part as well.
The entire cast is topnotch, flirting with stereotypes, but passionate and skilled enough to step back from that edge. Holter's characters are sufficiently complex so as to avoid easy consolations as he forces us to keep reevaluating everyone. Kip Fagan directs with electric speed and lots of driving music during scene breaks.
ADR to the entire production.
Philadelphia Theatre Co. at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad & Lombard Sts. Through Feb.28. Tickets $24-62. Information: PhilaTheatreCo.org or 215-985-0420