John, a professor and author, is about to receive tenure, and buoyed by the security that tenure brings, about to buy a lovely new house for his family as well. That will change. Significantly.
Since David Mamet’s Oleanna debuted in 1992, we’ve debated what sin John had committed to cause his subsequent dismemberment. Is he sexist? Elitist? Is he a sexual aggressor, using the power he has in the classroom for conquests? Or is he simply the victim of a rapacious student, who understands what buzzwords to use in order to bring him low?
In the excellent production now being staged by Perisphere Theater, the answer is obvious. John (Greg Thompson) is pompous. Worse, he works at an institution which forces others to take his pomposity seriously, and it’s driving at least one of his students crazy.
Here’s what I’m talking about: in the opening scene in his office, with his befuddled student Carol (Nicole Ruthmarie) trying desperately to get some clue about the material he is teaching, John is on the phone, talking to his wife about their real estate closing. Really, who does this? The lawyer with her client, the psychiatrist with his patient, the business executive negotiating a takeover — none of them would tolerate a moment of interruption, unless the building was on fire. But John blathers on and on, as poor Carol sits in the chair, playing with her hair and sipping from a bottle of Poland Spring. She is a student, and her time and intentions are of no consequence.
What makes things worse is that John — to the extent we can penetrate his gaseous prose at all — is an educator who is against education, at least in its present form. As he considers the traditional teacher-student to be a form of “hazing,” he seeks to improvise a different relationship amidst the phone calls, with disastrous results. He tries to break down the barriers between himself and Carol by telling stories about his personal life (and there are many of them). He opines that there were some members of his tenure committee who he wouldn’t hire to wax his car. He tells a pointless anecdote involving sex and nudity (about as erotic as fried liver). He puts a reassuring hand on her shoulder. And then two hands on two shoulders.
What is his game here? Is this merely an innocent attempt to put his philosophy into practice? Does he harbor paternalistic fantasies about Carol? Sexual fantasies? If so, would he ever act these fantasies out if the opportunity presents itself? The wonderful thing about Mamet’s brilliant writing, and Thompson’s superb performance, is that we never know, and we never know whether John knows.
We think we know what Carol is up to, though we might be wrong. Coolly observing John’s blunders and weaknesses (she is a copious note-taker), she construes a story which radically shifts the power dynamic between the two of them. Does she really believe this story, or is she simply seeking a way to relieve herself from the fog of John’s pedantry? Does it matter? As Carol herself says, behaviors and results, not intentions, are the only things that are important. And John’s results and behaviors, as they become more desperate, become more catastrophic — to him.
closes June 5, 2016
Details and tickets
Oleanna is an excellent choice for a new company’s debut work. It employs only two actors, and there is a single set, of modest construction, for the whole play. There is only one caveat: you need excellent actors to handle Mamet’s overlapping prose and half-sentences.
Perisphere has a winner in Thompson, who is completely convincing from the moment he opens in a phone conversation with his frantic wife to his final breakdown. We hear only his side of the conversation, but it is enough for us to realize his character and the relationship: he is not listening to her, but only waiting for her to finish so that he can talk. When, phone call finished, he wheels around to face Carol, we can see the same ethos at work: his tortured, circuitous, half-completed sentences work to inhibit, rather than encourage, conversation. John appears to have trouble articulating his ideas, perhaps because he doesn’t have very many of them.
This is an enormously difficult thing for an actor to do. We’ve come to accept the dialogue of a traditional play as a convention: no one talks as they do, say, in a Tennessee Williams play, with its clipped, grammatically correct, well-thought-out sentences, but we don’t mind. Mamet makes his characters talk like real people, and so obliges his actors to deliver scripted lines as though they had just haltingly stumbled out of their mouths. Thompson does this brilliantly, and so reminded me of Karl Miller, a master.
Ruthmarie is not quite as proficient at this difficult task as Thompson is, but she has no trouble powerfully establishing her character. The two monologues she delivers in the final scene are meaty, weighty and satisfying, and though we may have doubts over whether John has received the sentence he deserves, it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for Carol in the way Ruthmarie handles her. And that’s the hallmark of good acting; as no character is a villain to the person who portrays her, a fine actor will allow us to see the sympathetic side she first discerned.
Oleanna is a difficult acting experience, and credit for its successful production here must go to director Heather Benjamin. Benjamin is also the driving force behind Perisphere Theater, yet another professional theater that has sprung up on DC’s fertile soil. Does Washington have room for more professional theater? I remember the last time I asked that question. It was on June 21, 2007 and the company in question was Constellation. The answer was “yes”. It still is.
Oleanna by David Mamet . Directed by Heather Benjamin. Featuring Nicole Ruthmarie and Greg Thompson . Lighting design by Paul Callahan . Sound design by Edward Miser . Costume Coordinator Asia McCallum . Fight choreographer Kristen Pilgrim . Stage manager Linz Moore . Produced by Perisphere Theater and Alicia Goodman . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.