Story: John, a professor, is riding high these days. He’s been nominated for tenure at the university where he teaches. Confident that he’ll gain that security, he and his wife have found a new home and are in the process of closing on it.
Into this idyllic situation comes Carol. She’s a student in one of John’s classes, and she is miserable. In a visit to John’s office, she tells him that despite copious note-taking, diligent homework and faithful attendance at class, she is failing his course
John, while sympathetic, allows himself to be continually distracted by his ringing telephone. With this lapse in attention, he says and does certain things that, surprisingly to him, come back and attack him with a vengeance.
Carol, it seems, has accused John of sexual harassment. He is dumbfounded by the accusation. Yet, in a follow-up visit by Carol to his office, he again seems more pre-occupied with phone calls, and this time those calls are of a more ominous nature. John’s life is unraveling, and he believes he knows whom to blame: Carol. Is there a compromise to this increasingly hostile situation?
Highlights: David Mamet writes plays that go straight to the gut and tear out the heart, as evidenced by such signature works as Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo and Race. Oleanna is such a work; its two acts and three scenes edge progressively up the emotional scale until only the charred residue of its characters remain.
Other Info: Oleanna currently is being staged by Encore! Theater Group, a new company in town that previously staged Red and Toyer at various venues in the past few months. Producer Effrem Thomas Grettenberger, managing director Lauron Thompson and artistic director Phillip Allen Coan doubtless are well intentioned, but considerable problems have been evident both with Toyer and Oleanna.
With the latter, the very venue selected is problematic. The show is being staged in a conference room on the second floor at the Regional Arts Commission. As bad as the main performance area at RAC is (and it’s pretty pedestrian, concrete floor and all), a conference room defeats the purpose of the setting of Oleanna, which is the professor’s office. As it is, this presentation looks more like it’s in one of John’s classrooms.
Effrenberger provides the perfunctory lighting and Meredith LaBounty adds costuming and makeup design, particularly notable with Carol’s changing attire in the drama’s three scenes. Coan is responsible for the too often static direction and the unsuccessful set design. He deserves credit, though, for the whimsical sound design, an abundance of banjo and fiddle music that follows the tongue-in-cheek, Norwegian folk song from which Oleanna takes its title, a land where men totally subjugate women.
Ben Ritchie is an accomplished performer who has done consistently fine work for a number of companies around town. However, Ritchie’s performance was way too flat on opening night. Only in the waning moments of the final scene did his portrayal of the self-centered, condescending John reach any level of anger, frustration or desperation. A livelier audience perhaps would have elicited a more nuanced performance.
As Carol, Tasha Zebrowski is effective as she transforms her character from whiny and tentative to confident and commanding. Her alterations bring a chilling definition to the student’s increasingly sophisticated demeanor.
Oleanna is a compelling work that can challenge an audience to look at a situation from both sides involved, as HotCity did so successfully a couple of seasons back. Here’s hoping that Encore! can step up its effort in the second and final week of its presentation.
Company: Encore! Theater Group
Venue: Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Blvd.
Dates: November 21, 22, 23
Tickets: $15; contact 329-8998 or email@example.com
Rating: A 3 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Encore! Theater Group