David Mamet’s play “Oleanna,” when staged, tends to get violently mixed reactions from the audience.
Of course, no one argues about the quality of the play, just as, with Colette Robert’s version this week, no one will argue about the quality of the production. But the audience debates passionately the guilt of the play’s two characters, John and Carol. Some think John is fully to blame, others think Carol is guilty. And, oddly enough, the opinions tend to be split 50-50.
John (Gregory Yolen ’04) is a young professor of what seems to be educational theory; Carol (Nell Rutledge-Leverenz ’03) is his hopelessly failing student. The play takes place in three one-on-one meetings between the two in John’s office.
It’s hard to tell quite why Carol, who is young and naive but certainly not stupid, is failing John’s class so miserably. She’s clearly not unprepared — she scribbles notes furiously and unrelentingly, even when John tells personal anecdotes. But she doesn’t understand his words when he speaks; she doesn’t understand his concepts; she doesn’t have the foggiest idea what’s going on.
Carol’s problem is both her own fault and that of her professor. She is hopelessly literal-minded and antagonistic toward what she doesn’t understand and the professor who teaches it. He is pedantic and nervous, his language and ideas fuzzy; he espouses strange and hypocritical views about education that are wholly bound up with his own weird psychology. But, though he’s tense and awkward and is probably a terrible teacher, he isn’t a bad person, and though she is annoying in her perpetual confusion and contrariness, she certainly isn’t either.
John shouldn’t really do what he does in the first scene. He offers Carol an A in the class if she continues to come meet with him. When she asks why, he responds “because I like you” and touches her in an awkward gesture of attempted kindness. In the second scene, Carol returns more confident, wearing a more sophisticated sweater, and now part of some unidentified “group.”
When we learn that she has made a complaint to John’s tenure committee that may cost him his upcoming tenure, we aren’t totally shocked. In fact, her complaints about John’s teaching style seem to be remarkably sharp and probably correct. But her claims about his sexual remarks and innuendoes — all of which she has faithfully recorded in her notebook — seem more the result of a touchy, hyper-sensitive teenager.
If we think John is wrong in the beginning of the play, we think Carol is wrong in the middle, especially once we learn that she has even charged her teacher with attempted sexual assault. But by the end, when John’s hysteria about losing his tenure has reached a pitch and he turns into a true monster, we see that Carol’s complaints against him had not been totally unrepresentative of his character.
Robert’s show is wonderfully acted and directed. Rutledge-Leverenz plays Carol perfectly. In the beginning of the play she is perplexed when Jon speaks, hysterical at the prospect of failing, defensive and insecure; toward the end, backed by her mysterious “group,” she is more confident, accusatory and self-righteous. Rutledge-Leverenz plays all of these smoothly, each with a different, and always telling, facial expression.
Yolen is equally admirable as John; he is tense and awkward, his tone is pedantic more out of nervousness and insecurity than out of superiority, and he is certainly difficult to be around and listen to. But he doesn’t mean to do anything wrong, and we can sympathize with his worries about losing his tenure. The directing brings out the mounting frenzy of the play wonderfully so that by the end the viewers are almost as worked up as the actors.
Is this a play about sexual harassment and the menace of an angry teacher, or about a hyper-PC and self-righteous student? On first reaction to the show, women tend to think the former and men the latter, but in the end neither opinion gives credit to the subtlety of the playwright or the actors. Both of the characters behave poorly, but neither, at least until the very end, is really wrong.
Indeed, the audience’s reaction to the play seems to be almost as important as the action on stage. For if anything, the play shows how the same event, viewed from different perspectives, turns out to have entirely different meanings, and how drastic the effects of point of view are — both the points of view of those who experience an event and of those who watch it.