Packing a lesson in perseverance, play about disintegrating school staged at Suzanne Roberts

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Ever wonder what happens to the teachers, administrators, the whole universe of people who work in a large urban high school when it shuts its doors for the last time?

A play now being staged by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theater explores the range of emotions that go into trying to save a school against all circumstances.

Though such stories have unfolded all too often in Philadelphia over the past few years, unpredictability dominates “Exit Strategy.”

While there is nothing funny about a high school shutting down, bittersweet humor does permeate the play, said Michael Cullen, who portrays a weathered English teacher.

“The humor comes from the absurdity of their situation,” he said. “It causes a lot of tension — having a job that you prepare for and not being allowed to do the job because you didn’t have the books, you don’t have the room, you don’t have heat in the building, there are rats running round, the food is bad …

“I mean it’s ugly, but it’s also very funny,” Cullen said.

Playwright Ike Holter uses absurdity and unpredictability as tools for provoking questions about social conflicts.

“I think the tricky thing about a piece like this is twisting the audience’s idea of what they think they’re going to get, whether it be characters or plot of theme,” he said. “Yes, you need to keep them guessing. But you don’t want to just play purely with heroes and villains with a topic like this, you want the whole spectrum.”

Most of the characters inhabiting that spectrum are teachers, old and new, as well as a young and inexperienced assistant principal.

Just one student — a senior, played by Brandon Pierce — is in the cast. He is reprimanded for trying to attract attention to the school’s plight by hacking the school’s website. He serves as a reminder of how difficult students’ lives have become because of cutbacks. 

“Every day, I had to go to the teacher’s desk [for] toilet paper … I find that horrifying,” he says in the play.

The playwright’s precise and fast paced language help bring the stories to life, said director Kip Fagan.

“It sings, it come off the page, just like when you are in a crowd of people, and you are just listening to the sound of the language and not the content of the language,” he said. “You can hear that kind of music arrive in a crowded room, and you can see people participating in it, and it’s almost always true”.

But the quick pace also poses risks, Holter said.

“And it’s entertaining for me — and it’s scary — because people talk themselves into corners in this play, talk themselves into confrontations,” he said. “A scene can start very funny, and two minutes later, it changes because they don’t stop speaking when they should have.”

As the play unfolds, each character develops an “exit strategy,” a way out. Some are drastic, some resigned. But they’re often hopeful and courageous, never indifferent.

“It’s about figuring out what are you going to do when you are pushed to the limit,” Holter said. “Some people fight back, and they fight on, and they fail, and they feel good about that.

“Some people stay back and let someone else fight for them, so this play is looking at when people chose to fight or let something go.”

Christina Nieves, who plays a teacher, has a favorite line about that. “Towards the end of the play, my character says. ‘You fight, and you fight. We don’t beg.’

“That encapsulates the complicated nature of when you are going up against the system or an injustice, that you fight as hard as you can,” she said. “But you have to find a way to maintain your dignity and your self-respect.”

“Exit Strategy “runs at the Suzanne Robert Theater on Broad Street until the end of February.

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