Reviewed by George Basler
When David Mamet’s Oleanna first opened 20 years ago, fistfights reportedly broke out in the theater lobby. The two-character play is designed to provoke intense arguments, debate and even anger. The riveting production that runs through Sept. 30 at the KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton does just that.
Tim Gleason and Amoreena Wade do first-rate jobs in portraying Mamet’s flawed characters whose misunderstandings and failure to communicate honestly escalate to violence. Director Brandt Reiter keeps the interplay between the characters moving at a fast pace — the key to making a Mamet play work — as the tension rises through the three scenes.
Oleanna is one of Mamet’s most controversial works, and it’s easy to see why. Set at an unnamed university, the action centers on the power struggle between John, a professor up for tenure, and Carol, one of his female students who files a sexual harassment charge against him. The play touches on the hot-button issues of academic politics, sexual harassment, teacher/student relationships, political correctness and “group think.”
These are pretty incendiary topics, made even more volatile by the fact that Oleanna was first produced in the immediate aftermath of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill sexual harassment controversy that nearly derailed Thomas’ appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. The passage of 20 years may have lessened the topicality, but the issues remain relevant in today’s political and academic climates.
But to call Oleanna an “issues play” or treatise on sexual politics does it a disservice. That’s because the characters are real flesh-and-blood people, not abstractions put on the stage to make political points. At its core, the play is an emotionally raw confrontation between two desperate human beings who are struggling to hold onto their sense of self-worth and their need to feel justified.
The acting, as I said, is top notch.
Gleason, who is the KNOW Theatre’s artistic director, is excellent in portraying John’s evolution from a slightly condescending, distracted and pompous professor at the start of the play to an enraged, trapped animal in the last scene as he faces dismissal from his job. Gleason’s John is not a sexist jerk, but a man filled with contradictions. He seems to love teaching, but may be a lousy teacher. He is grasping for tenure, but ridicules academic life. He professes to be happily married, but gives hints of feeling trapped. Is he attracted to Carol, the student? What are his motives? The audience is left to ponder these questions for themselves.
Wade is equally excellent as her character changes from a confused, intimidated student to an avenging angel. In some ways, Wade has the more difficult job because Mamet seems to stack the deck against her. If played incorrectly, Carol could come across as a monster, motivated solely by spite.
But Wade gives the character a sense of humanity and vulnerability. While Mamet leaves it to the audience to fill in Carol’s background, I had the feeling that she is a first-generation college student who has taken on a mountain of student loan debt to get a degree that, she hopes, will move her up the social and economic ladder. To hear the professor ridicule her dream causes her real pain, and this pain turn into anger.
Wade is especially effective in one of her last speeches in which she lashes out at John for treating academia as some kind of game. How dare you ridicule my struggle? she asks. The speech is a tough one, and Wade does it justice.
In the end, Mamet seems to say Carol is being exploited, first by an academic system that isn’t worth the investment, and second by political pressure groups who are manipulating her to make ideological points. At least that’s my interpretation, but I could be as full of bull crap as John, the college professor.
One thing is sure, Oleanna is not an academic exercise. It’s compelling theater. The Know Theatre, which is starting its seventh season, is opening on a high note.
IF YOU GO: The KNOW Theatre is located at 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Oleanna will be performed at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 30. Tickets are $20 ($15 for seniors, $10 for students). There also is a special “pay what you can” performance at 8 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday, Sept.20).
Go online to www.knowtheatre.org or call 724-4341; for credit card purchases, go to brownpapertickets.com or call (800) 838-3006.