EXIT STRATEGY: Right Off the Front Pages

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DEIRDRE MADIGAN and Michael Cullen play two career high-school teachers as they grapple with the impending closure of their school.

DEIRDRE MADIGAN and Michael Cullen play two career high-school teachers as they grapple with the impending closure of their school.

by Bonnie Squires
Gov. Tom Wolf would do well to pack all the recalcitrant members of the state legislature into a bus and have them transported from Harrisburg to the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on Broad Street in Philadelphia and make them watch Exit Strategy, the East Coast premiere of The Philadelphia Theatre Co.’s new production.

Mayor Jim Kenney will certainly applaud this initiative, as he, too, is on the same page with Gov. Wolf when it comes to funding public education. The award-winning playwright Ike Holter may have made the play’s setting Chicago, but it could just as easily have been Philadelphia or Manhattan or any other major urban center in the country.

The set, mainly the teachers’ lounge, reminded me of Yeadon High School in the 1960s when I was teaching 10th-grade English there – but could have just jumped off the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The fight to retain their beloved school pits teachers and students against a young new vice principal who is carrying out orders and lecturing teachers individually to find “an exit strategy” for the day, coming soon, when the school will be shut down – and torn down.

Ike Holter, the playwright, who, like Ryan Coogler, who wrote and directed Creed, is also African American and age 29. So young to be so talented! Perhaps it is because he is not so far away from his own high-school days that he re-creates so realistically, with a recipe of laughs, tears, anger and unjustified hope, the triumphs and tragedies of today’s public schools and the people who inhabit them.

Best of all, he creates characters which represent a number of ages, from students to new young teachers to old-timers, and the actors who portray them are all highly qualified professionals. Deirdre Madigan in particular resonated with me. Her character, Pam, had spent decades in this under-performing school with very little in the form of resources for the at-risk students she has devoted her life to. Her initial exchange with the new vice principal Ricky, played by Ryan Spahn, is hilarious, as she meets his attempts at serious advice with cynicism and cutting retorts.

Her best friend on the faculty, and possibly her lover, Arnold, played by Michael Cullen, has seen efforts at saving the school and influencing the school board through the years result in failure. So he resists the efforts of the student leader Donnie, played convincingly by Brandon J. Pierce, an alumnus of the University of the Arts, to organize a huge march and protest.

The other younger teachers who have not had as much time to become jaded join in enthusiastically, including Christina Nieves who plays Jania, the Hispanic translator; Ray Lucas who plays Luce with a convincing Hispanic accent despite his Yale School of Drama training; and Aime Donna Kelly, whose Sadie is torn between her desire to save the school and her belief that it is fruitless to protest.

We have seen these conflicting emotions play out in Lower Merion as well. How many remember the efforts years ago to preserve Ardmore Junior High School – the articles, the protests, the amazing presentation before the then-School Board members by Dan Keating, who spent a lot of his own money to demonstrate what the historic school building would look like as senior apartments? But the school board pretended the citizenry had not spoken, that Keating had not distributed his amazing plans, and they tore down the school anyway. So ignoring the wishes of the community is not a new phenomenon, and it is not restricted to certain inner cities.

Sara Garonzik, the executive producing director, asked Suzanne Roberts to raise her hand and wave to the audience. She was seated with her son and daughter-in-law, Brian and Lisa Roberts. I was seated in the front row next to vice president of the board of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Victor Keen. Let me tell you, the first row center is a fabulous place to sit and really enjoy the show, which runs through Feb. 28.

A couple of rows back I spotted board chairman Jerry Riesenbach, Esq., the Cozen O’Connor attorney, who has been involved with the theater company for more than 12 years and joined the board after finishing 10 years on the board of the Arts and Business Council. He served as president for four years during the design and construction of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Riesenbach has known Ralph Roberts for more than forty years.

Without the Roberts family’s support, Riesenbach says PTC would not exist today and certainly would not have back the ownership of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. He loved Exit Strategy and thought it was well written and very well acted. He liked the fact that we seldom learn about how school closings affect the teachers and the administrators, but Holter’s play lets us peek behind the scenes.

The play goes off-Broadway from here, since it is a co-production with Primary Stages in New York City. Let’s hope Gov. Wolf sends the legislators to see it before it leaves town.

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