Story: John is on a roll. His book is taught on college campuses, including the one where he lectures as a professor. Further, he’s been recommended for tenure, which comes with a hefty raise that he is using to purchase a bigger home for his wife and son. While on the phone with his wife, he is visited in his office by a timid young under-graduate student named Carol. Confused and distraught, she confesses to her teacher that she doesn’t understand the class he is teaching, despite having read his book and attended all his lectures.
At first dismissive and oblivious to her concerns, John eventually attempts to console Carol with an offer to more or less tutor her in his office at regular, private visits. Throughout the conversation, John frequently is interrupted by the constant ringing of his office phone, which he is compelled to answer. Later John is stunned when Carol reveals that she has formally accused him of sexual harassment, which threatens not only his proposed tenure but his position on campus. While Carol perceives his ongoing actions and words as signs of exploitation, John believes that she is the one threatening him, and desperately seeks a solution to the escalating situation.
Highlights: Playwright David Mamet is a master at dialogue that goes to the gut of his characters, opening wounds of raw and fragile emotions laid bare on a barren landscape where survival instincts reign supreme. That technique is never more evident than in this intense, two-character, two-act play that is performed as three scenes in one act in the current HotCity Theatre presentation. With powerful portrayals by John Pierson as the pompous professor and Rachel Fenton as the confused student, director Annamaria Pileggi is able to overcome the sometimes stodgy pace of the piece and render a provocative and compelling interpretation.
Other Info: Mamet’s he-said-she-said drama invites visceral reactions by an audience, something that Pileggi finesses with her meticulous direction. Pierson does an expert job showing the professor’s arrogance, flippancy and rudeness, as he casually disregards the student’s torment every time his office phone rings. His lack of sensitivity opens the door to his own eventual torment. An accomplished and nuanced actor, Pierson conveys as much with a smug glance or gesture as with Mamet’s clever prose, skillfully revealing John’s escalating anger.
Fenton beautifully shows the vulnerability of the young student as much in scenes where the professor is talking on the phone as in her conversations with her teacher. Twirling her hair, fidgeting with a pen or methodically searching her notebook for answers to her dismay at not understanding her teacher’s material, she carefully epitomizes the fragility and quiet panic in Carol’s personality.
Lex Van Blommestein’s scenic design features a well-appointed campus office for John, with a bookcase to one side and a pair of diplomas on the back wall. John’s table and chair offer a quiet and confident contrast to the lonely visitor’s chair in which Carol sits at a respectful distance. Mark Wilson, Michael Perkins and Meg Brinkley add complementary lighting, sound and props, respectively, including a spirited version of the 19th century Norwegian folk song that is the basis for the show’s title. Some subtle costume changes for both characters by Scott Breihan emphasize the gradual shift in power from John to Carol, as he becomes less daunting while she dons an additional coat or jacket to assume dominance in the relationship.
Oleanna is intense, revealing and all the more relevant in our increasingly voyeuristic and accusatory society than it was when it first premiered nearly 20 years ago, and powerfully compelling in this incendiary HotCity incarnation.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Group: HotCity Theatre
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand at Olive
Dates: January 26, 27, 28, 29, February 2, 3, 4
Tickets: $15-$25; contact 289-4063 or email@example.com
Photos courtesy of Todd Studios