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Oleanna at the Source Theatre in Washington D.C.

Under the taut direction of Wendy C. Goldberg, the Source Theatre’s production opened up Mamet’s story of a professor destroyed by his student’s false accusations of harassment by exploring the humanity of the play’s two characters. The theatre’s intimate blackbox made a good pressure cooker for this parable of our times that is simultaneously a study of human psychology.

OLEANNA

By David Mamet

Source Theatre Company, Washington, D.C.

6 April 2002.

    Oleanna tends to be staged one-dimensionally as every teacher’s nightmare of political correctness. At a recent performance of the play by the Source Theatre Company, a woman seated next to me remarked, “This [play] makes me glad I’m no longer a teacher.” However, under the taut direction of Wendy C. Goldberg, the Source Theatre’s production opened up Mamet’s story of a professor destroyed by his student’s false accusations of harassment by exploring the humanity of the play’s two characters. The theatre’s intimate blackbox made a good pressure cooker for this parable of our times that is simultaneously a study of human psychology.

    Rick Foucheux plays John as a weary, serious man. A sweet, worried, compassionate, and self-disclosing professor, he is equal parts teacher and therapist. But he identifies with his student, and this is his big mistake. Foucheux explores the character boldly, drawing out the professor’s vulnerabilities hidden behind his pomposity, letting John be a little ridiculous, as all professors know they are, and a little funny.

In contrast, Holly Twyford’s Carol comes on like a mouse. Physically slight, hesitant, occasionally even stuttering, she seems younger than her years. Yet Twyford strongly suggests that Carol is a mystery. While the professor is consistently professorial, her student identity seems a mask. Does it conceal psychological damage the professor cannot grasp (“I’m bad.”)? Does it indicate social/ cultural shifts about which the professor is naive? Could Carol’s formal social persona conceal aggression?

    By the end of act one, the mood of this performance became so tense that the audience held its breath as the stage lights darkened. Everything after intermission in Oleanna is denouement, a continuous unraveling. Foucheux’s John looks ten years older, and Twyford’s Carol is appropriately icy in her new composure, as she speaks now not only for herself but also for her activist “group.” In this production, the director and actors have structured the devastation of John’s ruined life around two disturbing emotional tones. John seems to be inhabiting some form of hope, as if there may yet be a shred of forgiveness or redemption possible for him. Carol clearly registers compassion for John’s plight, most intensely as she realizes he has not yet learned that criminal charges of rape will follow quickly upon his denial of tenure. Yet the merciless trap springs anyway When he realizes how serious his situation is, John moves through hopelessness toward a posture of hate, and Carol recognizes her compassion as simply irrelevant after all. This final milking of the play’s brutal ironies is the production’s finest touch.

Director Goldberg mines this gold out of the academic/political morass at a cost, however. The brittle surface of a Mamet play—the unfinished sentences, the futile wrestling of words—is minimized, even undermined, when a deeper approach to character is allowed. In some ways this is an un-Mametian interpretation of Oleanna, one in which the center of gravity resides in character more than language. One implication of Mamet’s highly stylized dramaturgy is that laws and social/political/economic processes have buried human beings alive. “Mametspeak” is one of the symptoms of this condition. Yet the primacy of law in Mamet’s vision may also be a source of hope. And here lies the real dramatic interest. The same law that can be turned against innocent individuals may still be humanity’s sword and shield. Carol may be a misguided missile. She is wrong when she accuses her professor of “rape.’ But is she wrong in her more general allegations about the professor’s love of power that is really domination and his hypocritical indulgence in intellectual and physical transgressions? She may be vapid, she may be crazy, but she may also be right. As the shock effects of Mamet’s language diminish, his characters must hold together, even if they remain essentially mysteries to themselves. This production proves they can.

    Small details in this production are irksome. Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance seems too heavy-handed as an ironic musical frame for the play. The props suggesting the professor’s office—a desk, a rolling chair, a bookcase, a filing cabinet—are merely inert realistic devices. And the linoleum tile, clashing with the professor’s spiffy wardrobe, fails to clarify the school’s social level. The window, though, with its variations of light, works wonderfully well at suggesting different times of day. The diabolical telephone, so crucial to the play on a number of levels, is perfect, in its power and its ‘invisibility.” One can hardly think of a better demonstration of the actor merging with character than Rick Foucheux engaging so unselfconsciously with the ‘person” on the other end. In these moments, actor and character truly are one in the dream of drama.

ROBERT COMBS

GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY