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Review of London Oleanna

Starring Julia Stiles and Aaron Eckhart, Shelley Manis finds " a more sympathetic approach to both characters, which left me stunned and delighted—something I never thought possible as one who has always found the character of Carol contemptible. The program places the action squarely in the context of the “PC debate” on college campuses, even discussing “actual precedents” to the “fictional conflict.” Director Lindsay Posner’s production keeps the focus specific enough to lead the audience into the murky waters of Oleanna’s volatile subject matter without a sense of personal danger."

OLEANNA

by David Mamet

The Garrick Theatre, London

June 10, 2004


Productions of Oleanna so often set the audience against Carol that I expected the same of the Garrick Theatre’s production. What I found instead was a more sympathetic approach to both characters, which left me stunned and delighted—something I never thought possible as one who has always found the character of Carol contemptible. The program places the action squarely in the context of the “PC debate” on college campuses, even discussing “actual precedents” to the “fictional conflict.” Director Lindsay Posner’s production keeps the focus specific enough to lead the audience into the murky waters of Oleanna’s volatile subject matter without a sense of personal danger. On the other hand, the fact that the production doesn’t “take sides” (a goal noted in the program as one the director shares with Mamet) upends that sense of safety and directs us to question our own behaviors and assumptions. Without the luxury of hating one of the characters, we can’t say with certainty what is “right” and what is “wrong”—we can only recognize the tenuous relationship of the two notions in our own humanity. That’s quite a feat..

Designer Christopher Oram’s set stylistically emulates the college professor’s office without drawing attention from the actors. The proscenium stage is raked towards the audience, contributing a sense of precarious balance threatening any moment to tip into chaos. Anyone entering the office door upstage center is immediately visually propelled downward. Grey institutional carpeting saves the actors from danger of slipping during their struggles and lends authenticity to the “office” space. Narrowed by heavy curtains and furnished only with a wooden desk and its companion chair, a chair for visitors, and a phone, the office is at once minimal and claustrophobic. Howard Harrison’s lighting design adds merely a swath of light from offstage suggesting Venetian blinds and the outside light that filters (or not) through them. In addition, the cold overhead lighting mirrors that familiar institutional—and not quite comfortable—glow.

Posner cast John (Aaron Eckhart) as a younger and more sexually appealing man than normal to play with the idea that Carol (Julia Stiles) could easily find him attractive, thus heightening the potential for sexual tension visually—even if one reads the text of the play as virtually devoid of such tension. This move calls to mind the age-old cliché of students becoming enamored of their professors, and vise versa. A glimpse of Carol and John suggests before the first word is spoken that anything is possible.

Stiles’ approach to Carol is thoughtful and sympathetic. Too often she is played as first a girl with no grasp of academic language or independent thought who then seems programmed by some manipulative “group” between acts. Any autonomy Carol displays in the second and third acts is usually undercut by an utter lack of it in the first. In Stiles’ hands, however, Carol’s leap to self-assuredness comes across as that of an intelligent but inexperienced person struggling to connect to new language and the academic rules of engagement. She reflects, in her face and her physicality, someone struggling to make sense of her surroundings and experiences. The effect is that while Carol’s seemingly sudden transition from stuttering insecurity to verbal self-confidence is still a bit of a shock (after all, Oleanna isn’t necessarily a realist play), it’s plausible.

Eckhart’s John is energetic and clearly well meaning. He gives the impression of an idealistic young man playing at being a grown-up. He’s affable, distracted, brusque at times, and yet still likeable. And he knows it. While these traits as a whole provide a fresh interpretation of John, there is one distraction: his physicality verges on comical. Is this intentional? This production inspired laughter from the audience at several points—something I’ve never experienced with Oleanna before. Perhaps the actors and director set out to highlight the humor of the piece, a feature usually downplayed in favor of constantly rising tension. In tandem with Eckhart’s John, Stiles’ Carol is something of a “straight man,” and I’m not convinced this play should be treated as an out-and-out comedy—nearly the result in the first scene.

Still, I appreciate the resulting emphasis on the absurdity of the situation. Playing up the uncomfortable chemistry heightens the ambiguity of the conflict. For instance, the text never calls for John to physically comfort Carol as she’s about to confess her “badness” to him, but Posner has Eckhart embrace Stiles and repeatedly stroke her shoulder, boldly defining an intimacy that’s uncomfortably inappropriate—and yet still clearly not rape. In fact, the assertion that John “tried to rape” Carol elicited uneasy audience laughter. This is the moment that the paradox Oleanna presents crystallizes: language and a frighteningly powerful weapon. Because the linguistic minefield obviously explodes both characters’ notions of themselves and each other, rather than causing the usual hatred for one or the other, this production evokes pity for both.

    Shelley Manis

    University of Kansas