Playwright: Ike Holter. At: Jackalope Theatre at Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway. Tickets: www.jackalopetheatre.org; $5-$20. Runs through: June 15
Ike Holter, the out playwright best known for the acclaimed 2012 Stonewall Riots drama Hit the Wall, is known for being able to write scripts extremely quickly. Holter confirms his speedy reputation with Exit Strategy, now receiving a powerfully acted world premiere production by Jackalope Theatre Company at the Broadway Armory.
Less than a year after Chicago faced a flurry of forced school closures, Holter tackles that touchy local topic in Exit Strategy. It's a funny and searing piece that emotionally explores how differently a group of teachers, an assistant principal and a student all react when they're given the news that their school, a fictional Tumbleton High located on Chicago's South Side, will be given one final school year.
Some teachers just resign themselves to what they see as an inevitable capitulation to the closure ( one in particular handling the bad news in an extreme way ), while others at Tumbleton get fired up to rally the community to keep the school open. Exit Strategy not only explores the battle between the optimists and the pessimists ( and how some people get inspired to change sides ), it also pits people of different generations against each other as they bicker about whether or not a school closure might rip out the heart of the surrounding community.
Director Gus Menary has assembled a wonderful cast to realize Holter's snappy dialogue and heightened characterizations of embittered school staff. Though the play is truly an ensemble piece, the biggest character arc goes to the young gay assistant principal named Ricky Hubble ( Pat Whalen, great at playing insecure ). Initially nervous and meek, Ricky changes his entire approach to the closure when the senior student Donnie ( a genuine Jerry MacKinnon ) confronts him to become an agent of change.
As the veteran teachers Pam and Arnold, Barbara Figgins and HB Ward are respectively great with their seething anger and bitterness of seeing their life's work and past optimism snapped away from them. Among the younger teachers, Paloma Nozicka amusingly makes for a simultaneously feisty and defeatist educator called Jania, while Lucy Sandy as Sadie and Danny Martinez as Luce make for great examples of hip teachers who can be both beloved and seen as self-serving.
Set designer John Holt has created an appropriately grimy and rundown teacher's lounge for Exit Strategy, while lighting designer Claire Sangster gets across the downbeat fluorescent feel necessary for the piece.
With Exit Strategy, Holter is definitely taking sides on the issue of school closures, even if he isn't afraid to paint his overworked school staffers as deeply flawed saints. And in addition to maintaining his speedy playwriting status, Exit Strategy also shows Holter being able to follow the pulse of Chicago history.