Show: Exit Strategy
Company: Jackalope Theatre Company
Venue: Broadway Armory
Die Roll: 1
Each character has his or her own truth in “Exit Strategy” by Ike Holter, and that is the key to its success. All too often contemporary playwrights fail when they try to copy the speech patterns that made David Mamet’s writing famous: the stutters, the topic shifts, the overlapping partial thoughts that interrupt other people and one’s self.
In order to write a play in this way, two things have to be true. First, the playwright must have a truly good ear for the sounds and rhythms of speech. Not only must the writer be good with words and turns of phrase, but he must capture the essence of how we communicate on a daily basis. Take a moment to listen to your co-workers, significant others, or whomever. You’ll note that we often start to say things and don’t finish. Very few people actually speak without tangents, pauses, and the like. And fewer people allow others to proclaim long monologues’ worth of thoughts as we often see occur in plays that claim to be realism.
The second thing that must be true for a play such as “Exit Strategy” to succeed is a set of characters that are fully fleshed out. They have to have a true sense of their own goals, thoughts, etc. Many plays imbue their protagonists (and sometimes their antagonists) with this trait, but seldom do the secondary characters contain enough depth to matter.
Holter’s script succeeds in both regards. Each character that enters the Teacher’s Lounge that makes up the play’s set has a vested interest in the action of the play. The topic at hand is the impending closure of a Chicago Public School that is dear to the hearts of many of its faculty for various reasons.
The protagonist, Ricky (played by Patrick Whalen), is the Vice Principal of that school. At 30, many of the teachers who are his charges look down on his potential as a leader, partly due to his age. Nowhere is this generation gap seen more clearly than in his conflicts with Arnold (played by HB Ward). Arnold is a perfectly encapsulated example of someone who has dedicated his life to a lost cause. After decades in the school system, he has given up. The cause itself may not be lost, but Arnold’s truth is that it is, and that it has been for a long, long time. Ward captures that perspective artfully. One watches as he struggles, hurts, and eventually lashes out to hurt others.
It is difficult to pull this play apart piece by piece in order to analyze it, largely because it functions as one interconnected whole that cannot stand without all its parts clicking along at top efficiency. Director Gus Menary keeps the flow going, and the actors race headlong through the machine-gun lines. The daily minutiae that fills the time in a Teacher’s Lounge (arguments about students, suspensions, the union, lack of supplies, the neighborhood, each others’ habits, etc.) all carry exceptional weight when the specter of the school’s closure looms. Each carefully crafted line masquerades as unremarkable, daily life. Yet, when you view the whole, you are sucked into the lives of these dynamically drawn characters that have so much at stake in the little things.
Seldom does realism seem so real. Really, reality seldom seems as real as what is going on in the hour and forty-five minutes that make up this play. One scene breaks from the outright realism, and we take a momentary trip into Magical Realism. It’s the one moment that took me out of the play for the briefest of seconds. Either Arnold is hallucinating, or he is visited by the spirit of a deceased friend who used to teach at the school, too. The fact that this isn’t clear, and that the technical aspects of the performance don’t help to define the situation, caused me to actively ponder what was intended, which distracted from the otherwise perfect show.
Really, that’s the thing: this play is a perfect example of what we’re all shooting for when we tackle a realistic play. It brings to life characters that matter to us in a moment of their lives when they are dealing with an issue that matters to them. It raises an issue and addresses it, but is never preaching. It is showing us a slice of life, but it isn’t just any slice. Holter chose to show us the most succulent of slices. And as we sink our teeth into this piece, the flavors are so complex that we can’t help but walk away satisfied and yet wanting more.
By The Numbers Moment: You may have noticed that I rolled a 1 on my d20 for this show. A natural one (meaning, a die roll of 1, without at bonuses or modifiers applied to it) is often considered a “Critical Miss” in gaming. A Critical Miss normally equates to something terrible happening to the person who rolled it. I’m so very glad that this play was exactly the opposite of that effect. At risk of being cheesy, this play is a Critical Hit. I can safely say it is the best thing I’ve seen this year so far.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Doomed to fail, unlikely allies fight against a school closure.
RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”