David Mamet’s Oleanna still prompts debate
Susan Coodin as Carol and Anthony F. Ingram as John in Bleeding Heart’s Oleanna. (photo by Adam Blasberg)
David Mamet’s controversial play Oleanna set up home in Vancouver this spring. By coincidence, two small theatre companies programmed the two-actor drama for around the same time and the result is several weeks of heated conflict, on stage and off. For more than 20 years, audiences have argued about the play, about what really happened to Carol in John’s office. Possible answers continue to turn up as the play is produced over and over again around the world.
The Mamet on Main production ran from April 19-27 at Little Mountain Gallery. The second production, by Bleeding Heart Theatre, runs from May 6-18 at Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive.
Recently, Mamet is better known for his books of essays, polemics against antisemitism (The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred and the Jews, 2006) and against the American left (The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, 2011), but he remains one of America’s greatest 20th-century playwrights. Oleanna is among his most successful and frequently produced works, along with Glengarry Glen Ross (Pulitzer Prize 1984), American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow. Oleanna remains current because actors and directors love to engage with the challenging piece and audiences can still be electrified by the emotional battle for power.
In the play, a young college student named Carol visits her professor, John, in his office looking for help. She’s failing his course and doesn’t know what to do. John offers to tutor her and puts a reassuring hand on her shoulder. In the next scene, we are back in John’s office but Carol is no longer looking for his help. She has filed a written complaint accusing John of sexually harassing her. He beseeches her to see reason and to withdraw the complaint. John’s job and entire future are at stake.
Was she harassed? We, the audience, were there when it happened, but nothing is clear.
According to theatre legend, back in the early 1990s when this play premièred, arguments broke out in theatre lobbies over what John had done and what he meant by it. Many saw the play as misogynistic, and an attack on feminism. The taint of that accusation remains, which may be one reason actors and directors today are eager to reconsider the play and see what is really there.
“Mamet obviously believes this is a balanced argument, a dialectic about the nature of power in our educational institutions,” said Evan Frayne, director of the Bleeding Heart production. Frayne’s other directing credits include The Verona Project and The Foreigner for Pacific Theatre. He said one big challenge with Oleanna is choreographing the moments of physical contact between the two characters.
… the only stage direction for one such moment is: “He puts his hand on her shoulder.”
“The nature of how he touches her,” said Frayne, “becomes the crux of the play.” He notes that the only stage direction for one such moment is: “He puts his hand on her shoulder.” So, the director must decide how chaste or sexual or ambiguous the touch is to be. “It’s how far and how long,” he says of the simple touch. “Can that be something more than just a hand on the shoulder, or someone comforting someone else?”
He said he regards the historic controversy around the play as specific to those earlier productions. “My interpretation of what the controversy is about is a lot of people think that the character of John is more fully realized than the character of Carol. People say she’s simply trying to take down this good professor, which I think is not true.”
To Frayne, language itself is the source of the trouble. “I see this as a language play about education,” he said. Both characters are “stuck” with English, which is full of traps, he suggested. Male dominance is built into the language, he said, especially in a university setting.
The Mamet on Main production, which has closed, made the characters equal combatants. Director Quelemia Stacey Sparrow gave us a powerfully intelligent Carol and an insecure, clueless John. Pandora Morgan played a young woman temporarily overwhelmed by the demands of first-year university. Her confidence shaken, she looks for advice and reassurance from her professor. David Bloom’s John was a nervous man more at home pontificating than speaking plainly. He wants to help his student, but is too self-absorbed to treat her with respect. Instead, he regards her as something damaged that he can fix. This insults her and gives him licence to treat her like his own child and so to inappropriately touch and console her.
Bloom, who played the professor, is a seasoned local actor who teaches on faculty at Capilano University and Langara College. He said by telephone he was initially reluctant to take the role because the production he had seen 20 years ago made the play seem pretty one-sided and he had no interest. Upon reading the script, however, “I found Carol’s arguments more compelling than I remember from when I saw the show,” he said.
He said both characters behave badly. “Both are deeply flawed human beings who do some pretty horrible things,” he said.
Mamet on Main would like to remount its production at some point, said Bloom. “We don’t feel like we’ve explored the whole thing and we’re interested in working on it further,” he said.
Susan Coodin, Carol in the current Bleeding Heart production, had never seen or read the play before embarking on the current production. The University of British Columbia graduate who has many theatre credits, including Bard on the Beach performances, said by phone she was drawn to the script by the character of Carol. She identified, she said, with Carol’s life as a young person in a university setting. She was aware that in past productions Carol has been portrayed as heartless and vindictive, but Coodin said she took a fresh look at the role.
“I knew that there was more to her than what was on the surface,” she said, “and I was really interested in finding her truth and what she believes to be true.”
Coodin sympathized with the character who needs John’s help and validation so much, but who never properly receives it. “It’s hard to come to terms with what she has to do to find herself. I wanted to find her sensitivity and her compassion and her desire to connect with John, with her professor, and she seems to be consistently denied that.”
In the end, she said, Carol finds security and a new maturity through the work she does with her “group,” an amorphous organization never fully defined for the audience. Carol is “a sensitive person, but she also comes to realize that there is a cause bigger than herself and her relationships, that gives her confidence and she comes to find herself through her cause,” said Coodin.
The artists involved with both productions agreed that Oleanna is a sophisticated, well-written drama that can support a variety of readings. This is the sign of great dramatic literature and Vancouver has been fortunate to see two different interpretations of this classic script by one of America’s greatest playwrights.
For tickets to the Bleeding Heart production, visit bleedinghearttheatre.com.
Michael Groberman is a Vancouver freelance writer.