There are two sides to every story. That's the old saying. It's born out of the acknowledgment of our differences. Every situation is perceived, and later recounted, differently depending on one's role in the story whether that be of a purely perspective nature or in accordance with some socio-economic-demographic bias or viewpoint. Every story is told different by every person.
And so, David Mamet delves into this minefield with Oleanna, which is currently showing at Arts Fifth Avenue presented by L.I.P Service and Big Nose Productions. And despite the quirky name, they rain emotionally charged haymakers down upon the audience relentlessly in this jarring account of an exchange between a college professor and his female student.
John (Jason Levya) is a successful academician. He has published a book which he gets to teach in his class, and his years of dutiful academic pursuit are soon to be rewarded with tenure, the Holy Grail for all college educators and an eternally fleeting distinction these days. Carol (Erica Harte) is a student having difficulty understanding some of the class objectives and materials, specifically John's book.
Though constantly distracted by phone calls from his wife pertaining to the purchase of a new house, John attempts to explain his philosophy that higher education isn't for everyone to the demurring student. At first, he is harried by her inability to process his line of thinking. But soon enough, his agitation gives way to empathy as he admits he was once in her shoes. Further relaxing his tone and clearly taking an interest in Carol's inquisitive nature and drive for knowledge, John strikes a deal with her that if she'll keep coming to his office for these discussions; she'll make an A in the class. He even attempts to console her by placing his hand on her shoulder during one especially tense moment. She shakes it off.
The subtlest alterations can betray titanic shifts. The second scene opens with John in a slightly disheveled looking suit, a far cry from his clean-cut, professorial slacks and sweater from the opening scene. Contradicting this shift, as though she's engaged in an assassination tango of sorts with the man, gone is Carol's ratty jeans and plaid shirt, replaced with more formal attire befitting an adult woman.
Carol has filed a complaint to the university averring that John's behavior towards her in the opening scene constituted an unwanted sexual advance. His candid words he'd thought he was sharing with a younger version of himself, construed as pornographic. And now, his tenure is in jeopardy. Gone is the prattling little co-ed, replaced by a steely cold woman oozing guile and malice.
John's tenure is threatened and the life he's built hangs in the balance. What will he do when she continues to push and push and push? Is he the monster he's made out to be, or a victim of a cabal of rogue vigilante students?
Mamet's dialogue can be utterly frustrating. It's staccato. It starts and stops, interrupts, circumvents and is cyclical to a point of frustration. But, that's just when he pulls the trigger. It's a lull; the mundaneness of life and the lack of poetic flow in everyday conversation. In a lot of respects, it's real. But his writing, like life, is punctuated with moments of distinction, moments of suddenness, moments of ferocity, of truth.
But, what is true for some may not be so for others. And that's Mamet's accomplishment in Oleanna. He doesn't ask the question. And he certainly doesn't answer it.
This is a play that will foster lively debate and thoughtful conversations. It is didactic in the truest sense of the word and that, in addition to Mamet's unquestionable talent at striking a very human tone in his work, is what makes it truly exceptional.
Though don't let that praise for the script overshadow the praise for the two actors.
The role of John requires juggling several roles and interchanging them instantly. At one time he's the proud professor, finally getting his tenure, a lovely wife and young child, and a new house to top it all off. He's happy. He loves his family. But being an academician was not his first choice in life and years of being in the system has jaded him and made him sloppy both professionally and emotionally. And finally, there is the lingering question. Is there a monster lurking in there? Is he a misogynist? A rapist?
Levya, without jarring transitions, manages the three sides of John with aggravating synergy, leaving the audience grasping for an idea of who the real man is. It's never completely clear whether he should be hated or pitied, condemned or forgiven. Credit Mamet, but without a dexterous performance from Levya, John would just be a frenzied maniac.
Contrary to John, Carol is a jarring character. It's impossible to perceive her mendacious turn while she plays herself up as the cultural and gender stereotype of the damsel in distress in the first scene. But, when Harte makes the transition, it's chilling. And the further down the rabbit hole the story goes, the more Harte resembles the dragon tormenting the damsel in distress rather than vice versa.
And yet, there's a heartbreaking method to her madness. She truly sees in John a renegade professor, a detriment to the great bastion of academics – and women – and she means to destroy him, even if that means she has to play dirty and sacrifice herself in the process. One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, and Harte will draw battle lines between audience members who either condone or condemn her extreme actions. The one thing they'll all agree on though, Harte delivers a virtuoso performance.
Capably directed and produced by Ben Hall, Oleanna is a rare treat of stunning theater on a small scale. Arts Fifth Avenue is not a grand performance space. It's charming and artistic, with art on the walls by Lily Stapp Courtney, but it's quaint—in a good way—compared to some area theaters. And yet, in this converted house in the Fairmount district of Fort Worth, Hall puts together a production that will rival anything else produced in the region this year.
But, that's just one side of the story. No doubt, there are others still to be formed.