Triad Stage’s Oleanna does justice to Mamet’s vision

by Keith Barber

The tile-covered walls deep inside Triad Stage reverberated with the voices of men who had been unnerved by what they had just witnessed. Opening night of David Mamet’s Oleanna sparked a vigorous postmortem in the men’s room.

“That’s why you always have a third person in the room!” one gentleman exclaimed.

Nearly everyone inside the lavatory either nodded or voiced their agreement.

The “third person” comment referred to the situation Mamet creates in Act I of Oleanna when John, a pompous university professor played marvelously by Lee Spencer, and one of his students named Carol — played with subtle ferocity by Ginny Myers Lee — are locked in a room together.

They aren’t actually locked in a room together, but the bare-bones staging of the play makes John’s one-room office feel like a cage from which there is no escape. Oleanna takes its name from a Norwegian folk song that mocks the failed utopia that a Norwegian artist named Ole Bull tried to create in Pennsylvania in the 1850s. Perhaps Mamet was comparing the world of academia to the failed utopia of Ole Bull. Or perhaps Oleanna is merely a reflection of the American dialogue on sexual harassment at the time it premiered at New York’s Orpheum Theater in 1992.

A year removed from Anita Hill’s appearance at the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, Oleanna highlights that even though a debate about sexual harassment in the workplace is valuable, there are two sides to every story. Like John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, Mamet’s two-character drama touches upon the theme that to blindly believe in only one side of a story and shut out doubt is unhealthy, unwise and could lead to disastrous consequences.

“The subject of drama is ‘The Lie,’” Mamet once wrote.

“At the end of the drama, the Truth — which has been overlooked, disregarded, scorned and denied — prevails. And that is how we know the drama is done.”

In Act II of Oleanna, the lie at the heart of the story is revealed. Carol, the cold, calculating coed, methodically exploits John’s personal flaws — his penchant for rambling intellectual monologues designed to impress the fairer sex and his desire to be coveted by women half his age. What results is a battle of words that made many in the Triad Stage audience squirm in their seats and trade looks with their friends, partners, husbands and wives. At its core, Oleanna is a “power play” as it is described in the playbill, and the transformation of Carol from mousey student to her professor’s equal is remarkable to watch and a tribute to the acting talents of Ginny Myers Lee.

Act II also reminds us of how unsettling it is to watch our preconceived notions about the way things have always been turned on their heads. Professors hold all the power in their relationship with students — this point is made clear. But when Carol complains to the university’s tenure board about the actions of John in Act I (regardless of whether or not the accusations are true) it threatens his job at the university. Carol said she represents “a group” on campus, which one infers as other female students in John’s class.

John watches his prospects for acquiring a new home and gaining tenure “go by the boards,” all because he broke the rules of teacher-student decorum. The shocking climax is almost expected, but still leaves the audience breathless.

“People may or may not say what they mean, but they always say something designed to get what they want,” Mamet once wrote.

A war of words and ideas is the underpinning of Oleanna.

There is little doubt that Mamet hoped to spark a dialogue over the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace and how an innocent person’s life could be ruined in the name of political correctness. Triad Stage certainly held up its end of the bargain in this stirring, controversial revival of a play by one of America’s best playwrights.

Lee Spencer (left) Ginny Myers Lee go head to head in Triad Stage’s Oleanna. (courtesy photo)

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