By Pam Harbaugh
Skilled direction and excellent performances plumb the deep currents in Oleanna, currently on stage at Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach. In fact, Riverside’s production is as sharp and pointed and keenly drawn out as is the very play itself.
David Mamet’s Oleanna skillfully explores the various postures of power between a pompous college professor, John, and his equally insecure and self-critical student, Carol. His aggressive academia-speak is designed to dazzle while her submissiveness manipulates. The two are so caught up in their own “terms of art,” that they speak without listening to one another. It’s not until the final act of this short three-act play that a hint of truth breaks through to them both.
Oleanna is famous for prompting debate. In fact, Mamet recounts that after earlier productions of the play (close on the heels of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings), couples would get into physical fights in the lobby. Now, of course, those questions are colored by political correctness and #MeToo culture. But don’t expect to easily point a finger at the “bad guy,” because Mamet refers to both of his two characters as “the protagonists.”
This intellectually-charged tragedy is broken into three short acts set in John’s office. As the play begins, he is on the phone, which frequently interrupts the action. He’s about to receive tenure, which is a good thing because he is about to buy a larger house for their family. He’s trying to leave to take care of the personal business but first he needs to deal with Carol, a meek, young female student who needs help to pass his course. John tries to explain his academic intent, but his pedantry keeps him speaking down to her. Carol takes out her ever-present note pad and jots down notes on what John is saying. She laments that she must be stupid. John tells Carol she is not stupid, she’s just angry.
John calls Carol a “bright girl,” but she doesn’t believe him. She’s had too many people in her life tell her she’s not. He puts his briefcase down, takes off his jacket, saying “look at me, look at me.” He plays with his necktie. He puts his hands in his pockets. These of course are little actions with which Sigmund Freud would have a field day. Then John tells an intellectual but slightly bawdy joke using the word “copulate.” More back and forth with his academic-speak and Carol explodes with self-pity. John puts an arm around her to comfort her and she suddenly shouts “No!”
At this point, you think she is overreacting. He hasn’t done anything, at least anything overt. Perhaps she’s easily “triggered” due to past traumatic experiences. The idea that surprise is a form of aggression is floated. A quick blackout, act two begins. It is one week later and we learn that Carol filed sexual harassment charges against John which is jeopardizing his getting tenure and losing his deposit on the house.
Carol now wears a masculine plaid shirt and often speaks of her “Group.” She pulls out her ubiquitous note pad, now an aggressive action, to remind him of what he said and did a week earlier. Was her meekness an act and has she been used by an angry feminist group to entrap John from the get-go?
This is where Mamet’s writing accelerates into sheer fascination. Influences from the offstage world intrude and we wonder what a character’s real goal and real motivation are. It becomes a mystery that is never fully answered.
The action intensifies in the third act. Carol is now in power. A cap covers her last vestige of femininity. “I came here to instruct you,” she snaps at John. She appears well educated by her “Group,” which has given her a list of books which they demand should be banned. The phone keeps ringing. He tells his wife he can’t talk and calls her “baby.” Already threatening his career, Carol intrudes further into John’s life when she warns him not to call his wife “baby.” The act ends with sudden physical, emotional and verbal violence and a final line that should prompt much debate.
This is a tasty drama that is rarely produced because it is so demanding. Mastering Mamet’s language is like scaling Mt. Olympus. And the rhythm of action and dialogue is keenly challenging. His work has been likened to Harold Pinter with dialogue teeming with iambic thrust and parry and the pacing ever on point. But director Chris Clavelli and the wonderful cast create a rare theatrical experience. Denis Lambert and Dani Nelson are particularly strong as John and Carol. They disappear into their roles while keeping sharp attention on the precision in the dialogue and its pacing, which they have down cold (a must any time on stage, but especially so when it’s Mamet-speak). It’s a treat to pull back and just watch their excellent acting.
Sam Hopewell’s sound design uses quickening jungle drums to establish the warring theme in this aggressive drama. Emily Luongo’s scenic design has a lofty sense of balance which stands in contrast to the action. Anna Hillbery’s costume design reveals Carol’s changes in character. William Gibbons-Brown subtle lighting design has these brief, barely pulsating moments that seem to draw you closer to the subjects.
Oleanna has had a tremendous amount of literary and dramatic analysis done on it. While some point to the he said/she said themes in the senate hearings with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, Mamet states that he wrote the play well before those hearings took place. He says while living in Cambridge, Mass., he became fascinated with stories about the power dynamics of male professors who had romantic relationships with their female students. And, he insists that Oleanna is a tragedy and that both characters are protagonists. That holds true with his earlier work American Buffalo and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross.
The name Oleanna, never uttered in the play, comes from a Pete Seeger folk song about the fabled utopia of Oleanna, founded in Pennsylvania by Norwegian immigrants. The land, however, was too full of rocks so the Norwegians sailed back home. It has been posited that Oleanna suggests the utopian ideal of academia which, at the play’s end, is rocky to say the least.
Oleanna runs through April 9, 2023, at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach, Fla. Tickets are $65. The show contains adult language and situations. Call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com.
Pam Harbaugh writes for Vero News. This is a version of a review running in VeroNews.com.