Playwright Ike Holter gives an insider’s perspective on a Chicago Public School slated to be closed. This subject is topical, local, political and ignored by many. At one point, the play zings the city by saying that Chicago is more upset about a hot dog stand closing than a school. Holter forces the audience to go inside the lives of teachers and learn what is going on. Holter very skillfully makes us care about his teachers… even the burned out ones.
Scenic Designer John Holt recreates perfectly a teacher’s lounge on stage. Harsh florescent lighting, a well-worn linoleum floor, and the communal coffee pot create the believable shabby public school break room. The details establish the not-so-glam world of educators. Boxes are shoved above shelves. A sign tells people to wash their dishes. A door is marked “Stor ge Room.” It’s so real I have a slight panicked flashback that I’ve accidentally stumbled into a forbidden zone from childhood.
Director Gus Menary continues the genuine experience. He facilitates awkward exchanges, overlapping dialogue, angry outbursts. He makes these teachers human and flawed. His ensemble (Patrick Whalen, Danny Martinez, HB Ward, Lucy Sandy, Barbara Figgins, Paloma Nozicka, Jerry MacKinnon) is talented. Each one wears the school required armor… in that they talk tough. They are encased in years of disappointment in the administration and each other. When they become hopeful, we see glimpses of the vulnerability below the surface. Figgins crying. MacKinnon extending sympathy. Nozicka describing her students. These are unforgettable moments of compassion.
Holter’s EXIT STRATEGY is evocative from the first scene. His story comes out strong with an unexpected jab early on. The play finishes as an emotional gut punch. In the middle, the teachers pull us into the bureaucratic bullsh#t that interferes with their teaching. We care about them… a lot. The only hang up I had with this riveting tale is a significant plot point towards the end. After Whalen and Ward have a dicey altercation, Whalen’s character shifts. It’s not really explained why or the severe reaction the others have to him because of it. Martinez even begs Whalen to tell him why. He won’t. He doesn’t. Why? Martinez isn’t the only one wondering what happened. There is a leap that seems irrational or overly dramatic.
Still, EXIT STRATEGY is an insightful, humorous, and poignant look into the lives of CPS teachers. It put the current school closings into an uncomfortable reality for me. The play should be a required lesson for the city. Seeing it will build empathy for the noble people behind the school walls.
Running Time: One hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission
At the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway
Written by Ike Holter
Directed by Gus Menary
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 3pm
EXTENDED Thru June 29th
Buy Tickets at www.jackalopetheatre.org
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