David Mamet’s 'Oleanna' to be staged at RIC Feb. 16-20

David Mamet’s genius for drama is matched by his talent for controversy. When the country was taking a liberal turn in 2008, Mamet published an article in The Village Voice titled “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal,’” in which he found his beliefs “that government is corrupt, that business is exploitive, and that people are generally good at heart” no longer to be practicable.

Controversy also followed Mamet’s play “Oleanna,” which premiered in 1992. The work deals with sexual harassment on a college campus, among other things, and has been considered a response to the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which were sullied by his former assistant, Anita Hill, who charged him with sexual harassment. The hearings, divisive and bitter, resulted in Thomas being confirmed.

As it turned out, this polarizing historical event found a parallel in the way “Oleanna” polarized its audiences.

Local theatregoers will have an opportunity to weigh in on Mamet’s play when Rhode Island College Theatre presents “Oleanna” in the Nazarian Center’s Forman Theatre. Performances are at 8 p.m. from Feb. 16-19 and at 2 p.m. Feb. 19 and 20.

Program

“Oleanna” has just two characters, John, a college professor who is about to be granted tenure, and Carol, a student who comes to John for help in a course she is taking with him.

Although he tries to help Carol, his professorial authority sets up barriers, particularly his vocabulary, which at times gets too complicated for the student. He also has a maverick view on the worth of higher education, which troubles Carol as she feels it diminishes her and her fellow students’ efforts. And throughout their meeting, John is continually being interrupted by phone calls dealing with a house he is buying as a result of his imminent tenure.

The dynamics of the situation propel things in the wrong direction. John tries to placate Carol’s concerns over passing the course by offering her an A if she comes to the office for special help. Later, when Carol gets hysterical, John tries to comfort her with a reassuring hug.

Subsequent meetings reveal that Carol, with the aid of a campus group, files sexual harassment charges against her professor. These ruin his chances for tenure and lead to a turn of events that ends in irremediable disaster.

On a recent Friday afternoon, theatre professor Jamie Taylor, who is directing the RIC production of “Oleanna,” got together with senior actors Kevin Killavey (John) and Charlene Pratt (Carol) in his office to discuss their approach to the play.


RIC students Kevin Killavey and Charlene Pratt rehearse their roles in the two-person play "Oleanna," a RIC Theatre production directed by Jamie
Taylor. The play will be staged from Feb. 16-20 in the Nazarian Center's Forman Theatre.


Killavey, incidentally, was nominated for an Irene Ryan acting award at the American College Theatre Festival for his role as the younger Mortimer in the RIC theatre production of “Edward II.”

At the outset, discussion focused on whether the victim was the professor or the student. None of the three see the play providing any clear-cut answers, as if Mamet’s penchant for controversy is woven into the fabric of “Oleanna.”

In fact, Pratt said that she was disturbed to read reviews of productions that had audiences cheering for the professor at the end of the play.

Killavey added, “The play has no 100 percent answer. There are many sides.

“It can be done with one side being right. But that’s bad.”

Taylor emphasized, “For me the debate at the end of the play is key.”

Pratt noted that her allegiances shifted as she became more familiar with “Oleanna.” She said, “I sympathized with John the first time I read it, but then understood and could relate more to Carol after reading it again.”

Pratt’s reaction is a testament to Mamet’s skill in crafting the power balance in the play. Things change – quite radically.

Taylor explained that the power struggle between the professor and student has three distinct manifestations. He said, “In the first act the professor comes out ahead; in the second they are even, and in the third the student has the power.”

Mamet also challenges the audience’s ability to judge the situation by the way he presents information on his characters’ background. As Killavey noted, John’s outside life is continually brought into the play through the phone interruptions, but little is known of Carol’s. It seems as if there is never enough information to present the whole picture, to give incontrovertible evidence.

Pratt and Killavey seem to have no trouble in carrying the weight of the entire of the play.

“We’re both in it 110 percent,” Killavey said. “We have the same level of commitment.”

And Pratt noted, “We worked well together from the start, even in auditions.”

The actors have plenty of opportunities to test their skills, especially when it comes to capturing the communication failures between professor and student.

“There are a lot of lines,” Taylor said, “and the actors have to listen to each other carefully, but act like they are not listening.”

Killavey added, “You have to keep a tone and attention throughout. You can’t drift.”

“When they are near communicating,” Pratt noted, “the phone rings.”

In fact, there is one particularly important point when the phone interrupts. It occurs as Carol is about to reveal to her professor a secret that she has never told anyone, but after John’s conversation they never return to that point. The secret is lost to John and to the audience.

According to Taylor, it is another place where Mamet’s writing both creates ambiguity and requires the actor to get inside the character in a distinct way. He explained, “The actor has to act like she knows the secret but never let the secret be revealed to the audience. That could allow them to take the student’s side.”

That “Oleanna” is played on a college campus can have some strange echoes. Pratt noticed an odd coincidence recently – all very innocent though – when she heard a professor tell a student “I’m not god. I’m not your father.” It uncannily echoed some of John’s lines in the play.

For all involved, Mamet’s “Oleanna” has provided them with some of their biggest challenges in theatre. Even Taylor admits that it is the most challenging play he has directed at the college.

“I was terrified but excited,” he said. “At one point I wondered, ‘Why did I pick this show?’”

That question, however, will probably not be on audience members’ minds. They will be too occupied negotiating the beguiling paths Mamet sets out for them.

General admission is $15. Tickets can be purchased in advance via Visa or MasterCard by calling (401) 456-8144 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, or online at www.ric.edu/pfa.