Anyone who’s worked in public education in the inner city understands the extent to which impoverished American youth have been betrayed. Playwright Ike Holter, whose play Hit the Wall, a dramatization of events at Stonewall, swept the L.A. award spectrum a couple of years back, confronts this abuse by the powers-that-be in Exit Strategy, now playing at the LGBT Center (which co-produced Hit the Wall as well). The play is directed by Deena Selenow, and while her supercharged in-the-round staging doesn’t always work to the play’s advantage, the production, buoyed by two strong performances and an otherwise polished ensemble, scores a hit.
The entire action takes place in the teacher’s lounge of a Chicago inner-city school, on track to be demolished at the end of the school year. The drama’s pivotal character, Ricky (Adam Silver) is a well-meaning nebbish, and for various reasons the target of jibes and sarcasm from the others on the faculty. This is immediately clear in the opening scene when Ricky is tasked with informing an older female colleague named Pam (Jane Macfie), a battle-axe of a woman, that the school’s fate has been sealed. Ricky stalls and lamely offers her chocolate cake, as if that somehow will cushion the blow of her losing a job she’s been deeply invested in for 23 years. Pam promptly dresses him down for his shilly-shallying — then disappears into the classroom next door, where she fatally shoots herself.
Her death casts a pall over everyone’s spirits, and most deeply affects Arnold (Darrett Sanders), a tough and tired veteran teacher who had a prickly relationship with the deceased woman, but loved her. The veteran of many lost battles, Arnold is skeptical when some of the teachers start planning to publicly challenge the school’s closing. But the protest gets off the ground when an enterprising student named Donnie (Luke Tennie) surreptitiously launches a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for school supplies, then is co-opted by Ricky to help plan and lead the protest.
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From the beginning, Silver’s tiered portrayal — as an ambivalent man, trying too hard and too often to please — anchors the story. Entering the narrative halfway through as a super-smart kid boasting the naïve arrogance of youth, Tennie exudes vital presence; his character raises the stakes on the outcome which, when it comes, packs a punch. The other actors are also highly skilled, but sometimes the show’s alacritous style — augmented by a cacophonous sound design (Jesse Mandapat) — works counter to the more nuanced elements of the plot. An intimate relationship between Ricky and his colleague Luce (Remy Ortiz) plays more perfunctorily than it should. An animated performance by Maria Romero as an audacious young Latina teacher needs layers, while a conciliatory moment with one of her colleagues Sadie (a notably crisp turn by LaNisa Renee Frederick) is glossed over.
My other issue is with Selenow's choice to opt for in-the-round staging. Throughout the entirety of the first pivotal scene between Ricky and Pam, I almost never saw Macfie’s face. (Another audience member on my row changed his seat, something I could not do.) I had similar problems in other scenes as well.
Still, Holter’s play has important things to say about the devaluing of education and the disrespecting of both teachers and kids by a (literally) bulldozing bureaucracy. The production makes that point in a dramatically effective way, and for that it deserves plaudits.
GO! Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood; 323-860-7300 or www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre; through Nov. 5.