American school-based drama tends to follow a predictable template: charismatic teacher arrives in troubled school, inspires students by employing unconventional methods, but then gets ground down by The System.
Exit Strategy, Ike Holter’s play about a high school facing closure in Chicago (where it was originally staged in 2014), both typifies and satirises that familiar tale. One teacher even accuses the inept but idealistic vice-principal of “Michelle Pfeiffering this school” (an allusion to the execrable 1995 film Dangerous Minds, where the elfin actress wins over an unruly class thanks to her karate skills).
Exit Strategy never traffics in that kind of sentimental nonsense, but could have done with some old-fashioned discipline. For the characters spend too much of the 90-minute performance shouting at each other. This is at once wearying and implausible. Even in the toughest schools, teachers and students do not routinely tell each other to fuck off. Director Kip Fagan might have toned it down a bit.
The play’s relentless, vaguely comic vituperation also makes for an unbalanced portrayal of school life. We never see any of the teachers actually teaching or even preparing a lesson. Indeed, they appear more preoccupied with each other’s ethnicity and sexual orientation than with education itself. Meanwhile, their charges remain invisible save for Brandon J. Pierce’s hyper-articulate computer whizz, as if Holter had no desire to tackle the mundanity of more typical student-teacher interactions.
Only Michael Cullen delivers a well-rounded performance as a curmudgeonly shop steward with a racist streak. Deirdre Madigan also impresses as a veteran English teacher in the first scene, but reappears all too infrequently.
The play was written in response to a wave of school closures initiated by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. Yet Exit Strategy has surprisingly little to say about the two central issues in US education today: reliance on standardised testing (subject to widespread manipulation), and the rise of publicly funded privately run “charter” schools. It also seems odd that no character is allowed to make the case for closing failing schools.
Holter is right to eschew the inane boosterism of Dangerous Minds, but his own play lacks nuance too.
To May 6, primarystages.org