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There exists, you may have noticed, a certain sort of person who talks back to movies. Possibly you feel yourself above this sort of behavior. In that case, perhaps you should make your way to the Source Theatre, where you will almost certainly find yourself biting down on the impulse to shout violently at one or the other of the characters in Oleanna.
David Mamet’s incendiary, infuriating play opens, not entirely incidentally, with a conversation inflected by the very sort of class distinction at work in that last paragraph. At least that’s how one of them, a student, will come to see it; the other, her professor, sees only an undergraduate floundering, out of her depth in a course she seems unprepared for.
And that’s another of the play’s chief concerns, the one that sends events spinning toward an ending that makes a shambles of both lives: What, in any one set of actions, will two people see? How much of what they perceive is determined by their assumptions? By their place in the social structure? By power and privilege?
That list might also include “by gender,” except that another part of the argument at hand is that that final qualifier implies all the others—which is why, after intermission, certain unsuspecting audience members will find themselves nearly as dumbfounded as the professor by the charges with which the student rocks his cozy little world. Somehow a conversation has become a confrontation; an offer to assist has become an assault; to help has become to harass.
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But Oleanna is entirely too complicated to be dismissed as a play “about” gender politics, or sexual harassment (one of the labels that most often adhere), or even the menace of political correctness run amok (the other). It asks whether intention or perception is more crucial when it comes to determining the “reality” of any given interaction—and insists that we’re wrong no matter what answer we give. At least Wendy C. Goldberg’s judicious production asks and insists these things; Mamet’s intentions aren’t quite so clear, and his own initial staging of the show famously came down hard on the professor’s side.
Which is ironic, if only because at root Oleanna is a play about communication—about how critically we fail at it when it matters most. Happily, clarity is by and large the order of the day at the Source, where Holly Twyford, an actress I like and respect, has created a character I would happily have throttled by the plot’s three-quarter mark, and where Rick Foucheux, who seems to add another neatly realized Mamet monster to his portfolio with every passing season, succeeds admirably in conjuring up that very specific mix of intellectual arrogance and interpersonal cluelessness that marks so many of our finest academics. I cannot say which of them I would support if I were called on to testify or sit in judgment.
Goldberg doubtless deserves some of the credit for the production’s lucidity; she manages somehow to emphasize without overdoing the symbolism of certain scripted elements—the telephone, for instance, that interrupts every time John and Carol seem on the verge of real communication. It’s clear, here, that the phone isn’t just a distraction; it underscores that the tenure-tracked professor has more important things (the house he’s buying, the future he’s planning for his family) than Carol on his mind, and so becomes a vivid, omnipresent signifier of the distance between their two perspectives.
Similar resonances attach to some of the production’s unscripted trappings; Dan Schrader’s sound design, for instance, rings two or three bitterly ironic changes on the Pomp and Circumstance march we all remember from our graduation processionals, evoking a spoiled-academic-Eden feeling that will resonate even more deeply with those who remember that the tune’s seldom heard lyric opens with the phrase “Land of Hope and Glory.” Joe Salasovich’s costumes for Carol telegraph her scene-by-scene transformation from mousy, tongue-tied underachiever to combative dissident to vengeful harpy long before she gets around to delivering the jaw-dropping arguments Mamet has given her.
But the production’s chief and most diabolical joy is that, like the very situation it frames, it’s so infernally open to interpretation. The precarious balance the Source crew has created will send you and your loved ones home to argue for hours—about which of the play’s horrible twosome is more responsible for the awfulness that transpires, about whether the near-Gothic spiral of Mamet’s undeniably unlikely plot constitutes a tragedy or a bleak and quintessentially American comedy, about whether entrenched privilege or destructively zealous ideology is the greater evil, about whether the unthinking misuse of power is less damaging than its willful, triumphal abuse. And, quite possibly, about which one of you is going to spend the night on the sofa. CP