‘Exit Strategy’: Casualties in an educational war zone

(L to R): Johnny Quinones, Victoria George, Robert Bonotto, Jalani Dottin-Coye, Lillian Gomes, Matthew Fagerberg, and Maureen Adduci in “Exit Strategy.”
Photo by Richard Hall/Silverline Images

BOSTON – If you know a teacher who has logged a considerable amount of time in inner-city schools, you might find they resemble a soldier returning from a long stint in a war zone, showing signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Ike Holter’s “Exit Strategy,” being presented by the Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, opens with a meeting between a natty young assistant principal named Ricky (Matthew Fagerberg) and Pam (Maureen Adduci ), an English teacher who has logged 23 years in the Chicago public schools, and has the look of a soldier returning from a war zone.

When Ricky,a stammering young man limited in both his confidence and sense of authority, informs Pam that “The negotiations didn’t go as smoothly as we expected,” it’s then just a matter of the ball dropping and the announcement that the school will be closing, which will set off Holter’s dramatic chain of events.

Pam admits to Ricky she had long since seen the handwriting on the battered wall of the failing high school. “Forty percent of our seniors didn’t graduate last year.”

Holter, a promising young African-American playwright, will shock you right away as a gunshot rings out, reminding you immediately of the play’s title, and the intensity of the piece never really lets up.

As the teachers meet at the beginning of the school year in their lunchroom, they prepare for the long goodbye.

Zeitgeist Artistic Director and Director David J. Miller has cast both some proven Zeitgeist regulars and promising young talent to portray Holter’s diverse collection of well-drawn characters.

Robert Bonotto is Arnold, like Pam a veteran of the educational wars whose urge to fight and rail against the administration has dimmed, even as he clings to the notion that what he is doing is noble and good.

Jalani Dottin-Coye and Matthew Fagerberg
Photo by Richard Hall/Silverline Images

Johnny Quinones is Luce, like Ricky a younger sort who dresses as if he’s one of the students on permanent vacation and finds solace from the stress with some weed.

Sadie (Lillian Gomes) is earnestly out to win over her students with crackers and juice boxes, and is after the rodents who try and make the teachers’ room their own.

Jania (Victoria George) is serious-minded, and mindful of the responsibility of teaching the most troubled and special needs students even as she mulls having to close a school for the second time.

The spark that lights the match of resistance will come from a student: Jalani Dottin-Coye as Donnie, a student with nowhere to go and nothing to lose who preaches resistance on social media, and soon the entire school is in a frenzy.

Again, the teachers all seem to have an “exit strategy” — some more dramatic but others. But for Donnie and others like him – one of the 40 percent who may or may not graduate – the “exit strategy” seems to lead straight down, his last chance at a degree snuffed out.

As the battle begins to ramp up, Arnold recalls bygone days when the teachers walked out – to little or no effect. But Ricky, of all people, picks up the torch lit by Donnie on social media and runs with it.

Holter’s decision to insert a romantic relationship between two of the teachers seems forced.

And although he writes with passion and power. there are weak spots in “Exit Strategy,” where he doesn’t seem quite sure where to go next, and the play flounders s a bit towards the conclusion.

The forceful point Holter is making threatens to be lost amidst the profanity, screaming and yelling as the conflict veers into melodrama; there are times when the sound and fury don’t really move things forward or help make the point.

Still, the the cast is all in under the capable direction of Miller.

Holter’s “Exit Strategy” is a heartfelt, passionate plea for support for public schools – especially struggling public schools – and those teachers and students who find themselves swimming against the tide. It’sa reminder that every battle – even one as simple as trying to save a neighborhood school – leaves scars.

The Zeitgeist Stage Company production of Ike Holter’s “Exit Strategy.” Direction and scenic design by by David J. Miller. Costume design by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan. Lighting design Michael Ckark Wonson. Sound design by Matthew Good, At the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts Through March 11. Zeitgeiststage.com