Tacoma Arts Live description: Named one of Time Magazine’s “Ten Best Plays,” Oleanna is a seething investigation of sexual harassment, political correctness, and the irreconcilable differences between men and women. Pulitzer Prize Winner David Mamet pulls us into a provocative power struggle where “he said, she said” reaches deeply personal and explosive levels. This two-person story focuses on a university professor and his student as they view their out-of-class meetings from two drastically different perspectives. The audience will be challenged to decided what it means to be right or wrong in the midst of individual interpretations. This drama shines a spotlight on gender politics, privilege, status and power. Oleanna may provoke more arguments than any play you will see this year.
In the last thirty years viewers and reviewers have tried to figure out what this play means and what the title has to do with anything. Oleanna is part of Pennsylvania settled by Norwegian farmers who wanted to establish a Utopian society where all would live in harmony. The discourse between a teacher and a student dances around the possibilities of harmony and brings to mind Nick Lowe’s song covered by Elvis Costello – (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding
“Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself
Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?”
The song is about harmony. The play is about dis-harmony, so I guess they go together like aspirin and pain.
“Mr. Mamet’s approach to staging his own plays has always been text-driven, governed by his avowed (and somewhat disingenuous) theory that if the actors just say the lines and don’t dawdle, the play will take care of itself. Under his direction “Oleanna” was, above all, a war of words colliding.”
The stage was situated wonderfully. It seemed to jut out into the audience like it was something personal that wanted to get your attention. The left corner extended in part only a few feet from front row seats. It was orderly like a well planned life, but a life that is just a little too clean and antiseptic. Something is missing.
Is there a difference between talking to, talking at, and talking down? All three of those versions of expression form the actions or reactions by John, a college professor seeking tenure, played by Sean Neely. Sean is a member of Theatre Puget Sound and won awards for his performance in Tacoma Little Theatre’s Pillow Man. Sean does a great job as a put-upon husband and teacher trying to juggle life’s little adventures that seem threatening from his first phone call on stage and go downhill with almost every spoken word afterwards.
Asking questions and making obtuse comments is Carol, nicely played by Angelica Barksdale. Obtuse is a word that John would use. Carol is a mixture of questioning her own abilities and bravado as she seeks and demands answers. David Mamet is known for his accurate use of the American vernacular (the way we generally speak) as he explores the relationships of language and behavior. Mamet never seems to have any fun.
The set is bright, but the prospects for a good outcome are dim. Watching this play results in no joy, no playtime. It is all about work. John is digging himself a hole that he can perhaps never climb out of. Carol is trying to climb out of her hole but it seems to pull her further down. She appears to speak with passion, but lacks compassion. Both characters are being led along the path of Greek Tragedy. Most of the elements are there: Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, and Spectacle. What’s missing is song. Where is Elvis Costello when you need him. “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?”
Oleanna is a great discussion starter. Oleanna runs through the 23rd of February. For more information and tickets, please visit – tacomaartslive.org/events/calendar/eventdetail/1465/-/oleanna