Review: Oleanna (Unit 102 Actors Co.)
By George Perry
Mamet smashes Toronto’s Unit 102 Theatre
Oleanna is a play about power, relationships and the abuse of power. It involves a male university professor, a young female student, and “the chickens coming home to roost”.
Oleanna is also a play that sometimes divides men and women. I am not so sure about that, but it does facilitate intelligent conversation.
The entire play takes place in a professor’s (Scott Walker) office. Naïve student Carol (Linzee Barclay) visits him. She is having difficulty understanding the course material and John’s book.
Oleanna was written by David Mamet. Mamet is a prolific and magnificent writer. Many people consider him to be the finest writer of dialogue alive. I am a huge fan of his work. I find his recent political views considerably less agreeable.
The set is an effective reproduction of a professor’s office. It is sparse, with less than current furnishings, and jammed with books. A small window offers a glimpse of the gorgeous campus outside. Mike, my guest for the evening, and I were having “college flashbacks” during and after the play.
Scott Walker is great from start to finish. What he says, how he says it, and moves will remind you of your favourite teacher. Even his Boston accent is inviting. He shows compassion for Carol and offers to help her with her studies.
John is often interrupted by a telephone that refuses to stop ringing. Walker does a great job of making the calls seem real. We can feel his pain and frustration at the frequent interruptions.
There are three scenes in Oleanna, each one being a meeting between Carol and John in his office. The first begins as being nurturing. John has all the power and he is somewhat pompous. At the same time, he is offering help, trying to be a good educator. He identifies with Carol. He considers her lack of understanding more a fault of his teaching than of her hard work.
John offers his beliefs on education to Carol. He thinks higher education is little more than “hazing”. He has radical ideas.
Carol matures immensely as Oleanna progresses. Barclay does a great job portraying this growth. We believe her as a naïve teenager. She carries a backpack and wears a headscarf. She literally doesn’t know what “paradigm” means. Later, we believe her as a radical activist. She is intent on banning books. She files a complaint against John with the university and charges him with rape.
Barclay and Walker play off each other fantastically. Early on, the attraction between the two can be felt. Later, their animosity makes the hair stand up on your neck and arms.
In the end, Carol has become a very successful product of John’s lessons. She has taken his teaching to heart, become indoctrinated. She also destroys his career and likely his family. Sometimes the chickens do come home to roost.
Mamet has been branded a neoconservative. Knowing this, it is easy to understand why he wrote Carol as such a rabid villain. Maybe that’s a male viewpoint. Women might see Carol as a rabid hero(ine).
Overall, Mike and I both thought Oleanna was great. We thought it would be even better if it had a less erratic schedule (see below).
Oleanna was first staged in 1992, shortly after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. Clarence Thomas is a conservative judge, appointed to The Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush. Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings.
As a result of those hearings, public consciousness of sexual harassment was hugely heightened. Oleanna does the same. If you like knowledge, thinking and engaging with other thoughtful people, Oleanna is for you.