by Ike Holter
Directed by Josh Costello
Aurora Theatre Company
August 30 – September 29, 2019
Review by Kedar K. Adour, MD
"Exit Strategy" explodes on the Aurora Stage.
Energy abounds on the Aurora Stage with about two hours (without intermission) of interpersonal action leading to a cataclysmic off stage explosion. That explosion is the summation exclamation point of Ike Holter’s very meaningful play about the fate of many under-performing Chicago Public Schools that are closing and/or being torn down. Unfortunately the non-stop action with overlapping dialog may be an actor’s paradise but tends to overpower the theme of social injustice.
The majority of the play takes place in a rundown teacher’s lounge with a meaningful prolog and devastating epilogue. In the prologue white hyper-active vice-principal Ricky (Adam Nieman) is hedging his words until Pam (Margo Hall) a black teacher with 23 years’ experience exclaims “Get on with the bullshit!” The school will be closing next year. It is news that she would expect since only “Forty percent of our seniors graduated last year” and building is in disrepair. Her non-verbal response is to go into the next room and shoot herself.
The following three scenes occur over the school year in the teacher’s lounge where we meet four other teachers who discuss and share their frustrations on how to prevent the closure even though previous attempts to obtain adequate funding have been unsuccessful. Those teachers are the older level-headed Arnold (Michael J. Asberry) who is selected to tell the student body of the impending closure, the overly vocal hyperactive Sadie (Sam Jackson), Hispanic Jania (Gabriella Fanuele) and the ill-defined Luce (Ed Gonzales Moreno). This time they will obtain public support with a march. It is an emotional solution “exit strategy” that has all the earmarks of being futile.
Midway through the play Holter introduces super-smart student Donnie (Tre’Vonne Bell) who has hacked into the schools computers and while being “chastised” by Ricky a plan emerges to use Donnie’s genius to add an on-line social media blitz to aid the cause. For some unknown reason Holter has inserted a blatant kissing scene between Ricky and fellow teacher Luce that seems gratuitous.
Holter adds another “romantic touch” by bringing back Pam as vision to Arnold whom she cajoles into not taking a contemplated drastic undefined action. By this time the closure is inevitable , the reaction of the participants predicable and the epilog anticlimactic but devastating.
Local icon Margo Hall never disappoints and it is a pity that after the epilog she is only brought back on stage for the brief stint as a vision. Michael J. Asberry gains the audience empathy with his stellar portrayal of veteran teacher battered by an unfair system but never losing his aid to his students. Adam Niemann’s performance is a whirlwind of words and body contortions that are distracting. Tre’Vonne Bell shares honors with Hall and Asberry with his multilayered depiction of the computer whiz with “smart” ideas. Sam Jackson and Gabriella Fanuele express the toughness of character needed to survive in a dysfunctional system.
This is Josh Costello’s first production as the new Artistic Director for Aurora Theatre and even though it is very auspicious does not match his award winning direction of Eureka Day.
Kate Boyd’s atmospheric set complete with exposed electric paraphernalia and vents strung along the top of the back wall earn accolades as do the Stephanie Anne Johnson’s lighting design and James Ard’s sound design.
CAST: Michael J. Asberry as Arnold; Tre'Vonne Bell as Donnie; Gabriella Fanuele as Jania; Margo Hall as Pam; Sam Jackson as Sadie; Ed Gonzalez Moreno as Luce;, and Adam Niemann as Ricky.
CREATIVE TEAM: Scenic Designer Kate Boyd; Costume Designer Maggie Whitaker; ASM/Props Master Elisabeth Reeves; Dramaturg Leigh Rondon-Davis; Lighting Designer Stephanie Anne Johnson; Sound Designer James Ard ; Intimacy Director Maya Herbsman; Stage Manager James McGregor.