BWW Review: N.E. Premiere of Ike Holter's EXIT STRATEGY: This is Not a Drill
Written by Ike Holter, Direction & Scenic Design by David J. Miller; Costume Design, ElizaBeth Cole Sheehan; Lighting Design, Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design, Matthew Good; Stage Management, Quang Milligan, Lexie Lankiewicz
CAST (in order of appearance): Maureen Adduci, Matthew Fagerberg, Robert Bonotto, Johnny Quinones, Lillian Gomes, Victoria George, Jalani Dottin-Coye
Performances through March 11 by Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.zeitgeiststage.com
Zeitgeist Stage Company Artistic Director David J. Miller has joined the ranks of the prescient Boston theater leaders who have programmed plays this season that have turned out to be timely and important. Company calendars are set months in advance, yet we have seen Good, Fiddler on the Roof, and Thurgood at New Repertory Theatre, 1984 at American Repertory Theater, and The Atheist at Boston Playwrights' Theatre. Currently onstage at Zeitgeist is the New England premiere of Ike Holter's Exit Strategy, a play about the impending closing of a failing inner-city Chicago school, how it impacts the faculty and students, and the measures they take to fight back.
The play opens at the start of the school year in the faculty break room as teachers return from summer vacation. For the most part, they are dressed casually, drinking coffee, and gradually awakening to their tasks, as if coming off of a long nap. Therefore, they are a little slow to grasp the information imparted to them that this will be the last year in their current school building. Veteran teacher Pam (a fierce Maureen Adduci), who has spent decades on the front lines of the education wars, has a private info session with the vice-principal Ricky (Matthew Fagerberg), a wet-behind-the-ears bureaucrat who is clearly in over his head. Pitted against the "crazy old bitch," Ricky is the proverbial guy who brought a knife to a gunfight, and Pam pulls no punches as she "schools" him, but he is not prepared for her drastic exit strategy.
Pam's long-time colleague Arnold (Robert Bonotto), almost as feisty and certainly as war-weary, explains the facts of life to his young colleagues, Luce (Johnny Quinones), Sadie (Lillian Gomes), and Jania (Victoria George). Arnold has the experience and knowledge of how to battle for their cause, but he is too tired. The youthful trio doesn't really know where to begin, but they join the fight when Donnie (Jalani Dottin-Coye), a student in Sadie's class, hacks into the school's website and initiates an Indiegogo crowdfunding page. Following Donnie's lead and inspired by his commitment and love for the school, Ricky dives into the fray, transforming himself into a leader in the process.
The committee is energized and succeeds in raising money and neighborhood support. Failure is not an option, so none of them spends time on crafting exit strategies. Playwright Holter conveys the deeply-felt emotions on both sides of this issue, and Director Miller has found all the right players to inhabit these characters. Dottin-Coye is a force, his eyes shining with intensity when he makes his case to the adults. Donnie definitely fights above his weight when he steps up to try to save the school, and the young actor is authentic and natural in the role. Fagerberg's portrayal of Ricky's story arc is impressive, and Bonotto wears Arnold's fatigue, resignation, and grief like a comfortable old suit. Quinones, Gomes, and George distinctively shape their characters, as well.
Miller's scenic design places us in a typical teacher's lounge, with lighting design by Michael Clark Wonson. ElizaBeth Cole Sheehan helps define the characters with her costume designs, and Sound Designer Matthew Good enhances the drama with ringing phones, crowd noise, and the approach of heavy equipment that virtually shakes the room. The design elements, the performances, and Holter's ripped from the headlines story-telling give the entirety of the production verisimilitude. Unfortunately, we are likely to see more occurrences like this as our cities and our nation struggle with the best way forward in educating our children. Let's hope that there are many more Donnies out there to lead the charge.
Photo credit: Richard Hall/Silverline Images (Victoria George, Matthew Fagerberg, Johnny Quinones, Robert Bonotto, Jalani Dottin-Coye, Lillian Gomes)