Vice-principal Ricky (Adam Niemann) is a middle manager par excellence. He’s primarily concerned with keeping his job and maintaining the status quo at a Chicago public high school. Unfortunately for him, the teachers, and their students, the school’s in a serious state of decline. Three years earlier the teachers went on strike to get the city’s attention and funding — but to no avail. Ricky acknowledged the systemic problems but took a neutral stance and did nothing to help.
As Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy begins (at the Aurora Theatre through Sept. 29), he’s faced with the consequences of his inaction. One by one, Ricky calls each teacher into his office to tell them the bad news. The city’s closing the school down and then bulldozing it.
Pam (Margo Hall), who’s been on staff for decades, already knows what the score is. She’s seen her fellow teachers leave his office in tears. Ricky starts their conversation off by saying he’s bought the chocolate cake that’s in the lounge. In a prickly retort that recalls Olive Kitteridge (from Elizabeth Strout’s novels), she tells him an anecdote about the time the family dog died. Pam bought ice cream that day to temper her son’s grief with a sweet dessert. She’s not interested in Ricky’s cake or his bullshit. For once, she just wants him to be forthright about his business.
Their exchange is a perfectly synchronized dialogue that pits his reluctance to tell the truth against her mounting provocations. In this situation, Pam’s got nothing to lose because she knows she’s already lost her job and her life’s work. Eventually, Ricky stops dissimulating and matches her belligerence with some pent up rage of his own. She wakes him up at last, even if it’s only a pyrrhic victory. Without spoiling the play, Pam doesn’t show up at work for that final school year.
When the term begins, her longtime colleague Arnold (Michael J. Asberry) convenes a meeting with three other teachers. Arnold’s embittered by the school closing and he blames Ricky — the figurehead of administrative indifference — for it. He understands that the failed strike was the last chance they had to save the school. During the meeting, Sadie (Sam Jackson) suggests another walkout to drum up public interest in their plight. Like a weary oracle, Arnold’s resigned to the school’s fate and shuts that idea down as a futile gesture and a waste of time.
Jania (Gabriella Fanuele), the special ed teacher, loves her job but hates the district for being so unsupportive of her programs. As her class sizes have increased, so has her workload. Only Luce (Ed Gonzalez Moreno) seems unfazed by the changes. That’s because he and Ricky have fallen in love. But the origins and delivery of their affair is underwritten. Luce doesn’t respect Ricky as a boss but he desires him nonetheless. Not an unheard of romantic entanglement but one that suddenly starts to crumble when the couple’s faced with external pressures. Both actors are believable as an infatuated pair but there’s little in the script to account for their mutual attraction.
As the ever-equivocating Ricky, Adam Niemann is a man possessed. He inhabits Ricky’s emotions from the base of his spine to the impassioned spittle that flies out of his enraged mouth. His intense performance didn’t throw the rest of the cast off balance, until he delivered one of his final, earth-shattering tantrums. In response to it, Jackson’s eyes opened wide with surprise. At that point, Niemann wasn’t just acting. He was channeling this man’s spirit off the page and onto the stage.
Which is why it was vexing to watch as Ricky’s psyche sputtered and petered out. Of all the characters, he changes the most. Then his agitated spirit just vanishes, as if he’d been exorcised from Niemann’s body. With the help of a social media-savvy student named Donnie (Tre’Vonne Bell), Ricky makes an impassioned attempt to avert the closure. But Holter, like the pessimistic Arnold, is a clear-eyed realist. The playwright provides Ricky with a new moral center but doesn’t give him the power to rescue anyone or sway the dangerous minds of apparatchiks.
Exit Strategy, through Sept. 29, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. $35-$70; 510-843-3822 or auroratheatre.org