Review: Face Off Theatre Makes a Deep Impact Once Again with 'Exit Strategy'

It’s the final year for a failing Chicago high school, just one of many that graduates fewer than half their students and is therefore slated for the sledgehammer. Not only do they have 20 computers for 3,000 students, they can’t sufficiently stock the bathrooms with toilet paper.

Remarkably funny, powerful, and real talking, the 2014 “Exit Strategy,” by young Chicago playwright Ike Holter is too poetic to be an overt polemic, and it comes to life magnificently at Face Off Theatre Company under Marissa Harrington’s fine direction. Instead, it dives into the heart of the matter, largely through the eyes of teachers who literally give their lives to a public school system whose writing is on the wall. As one marvelously distinct character says, “I love this school more than I love myself.” 

The drama that unfolds primarily in the teachers’ smelly, rat-infested lounge is haunted by that teacher’s sacrifice—as well as all the largely Black and brown students failed by the system no one seems able to save. At least not on the ground. What reverberates from the jump is that no matter the dedication of the teachers or the students, without systemic support and resources the public schools that serve the underprivileged—no, not the North Shore ones—will continue to become ghosts that haunt us all in devastating ways. 

The stakes are incredibly high, the characters rich, and the performances in this production excellent with simple but effective sets, sound, lights (Sam Snow), and costumes.

The play opens at the beginning of the end with one powerful scene after another building to little climaxes. Three younger teachers who are people of color (Erica Soto, SheaLin Shobowale-Benson, Diego Zambrana) play off the decades-long suffering white teachers (Gayle Beach, David Noyes) under the useless leadership of a closeted white assistant principal (Drew Gorzen). But the assistant principal finally grows a pair when, instead of expelling student Donnie (Xavier Bolden) for hacking the school website to create a kickstarter to raise funds, he appoints him as his “creative associate” to take charge of social media for a newly formed “Team Winning” which will rally support to save the school.

They all play their dynamic, real-talking characters to the hilt, but it’s in this dynamite scene when the real stakes come alive. Bolden lights up the stage with his Donnie, fully committed, speaking truth to power, with “ADR” (all due respect), rallying everyone to fight the good fight. 

But it’s too little too late, and the outcome isn’t quite that simple. Despite the best efforts of the teachers, it’s the students who are the sacrificial lambs, both symbolically and literally—shown with a lone Donnie as the final stage picture of the play.

“Exit Strategy” is designed to raise awareness and start conversations, and in Face Off Theatre’s capable hands with pay-what-you-can tickets and talk backs after each performance designed to facilitate community conversations, this play is making good on that promise. This is the best kind of theatre—home grown entertainment that not only makes us think but changes us for having born witness to it.

Exit Strategy
Face Off Theatre
Oct. 19-22