Review: Oleanna (Jaybird Productions)

Production photo of "Oleanna" by Jaybird Productions

Oleanna offers an unflinching look at the monster in each of us, at Toronto’s Red Sandcastle Theatre

Jaybird Productions is launching their inaugural season with an ambitious start: Oleanna, David Mamet’s challenging and unflinching look at institutions, sexual harassment, and how ordinary people can be turned into complete monsters. As the scenario escalates, as lives are destroyed, and as characters find new depths of both desperation and isolation from one another, the whole play begins to feel more and more like a limbo dance: “How low will you go?”

The actual story is beautifully simple. A student (Carol) has three meetings with her professor (John). John, in his zeal to be progressive and engaging, oversteps a number of traditional boundaries. He views this as an act of human kindness; Carol views it as offensive and bordering on sexual harassment; and all attempts at reconciliation only make the situation worse. The tension, frustration and rage build and build until an explosion is inevitable, and Mamet doesn’t let us down.

Both of the actors (Jacqui Skeete as Carol; James R. Woods as John) are up to the task and deliver complex performances. Woods’ John feels exactly like an overly-earnest instructor, convinced he shares things in common with his pupils and determined to relate to them. Skeete’s Carol has a firm spine and enough sense of herself to see straight through John’s game of relating to his students by projecting himself onto them.

The decision to cast a woman of colour as Carol is especially wise. It emphasizes the sheer phoniness of John’s overtures—no matter how often he says “I understand”, we never quite believe him—and adds a deeply racist subtext to a few of his remarks. John is clearly the sort of person who considers himself too enlightened to “see” race, but Carol cannot afford to be so blind.

The difficulty my companion and I both had is that these characters don’t really seem to grow or develop except in an extremely linear fashion. Oleanna works best when there’s an element of role reversal, but this production didn’t seem inclined to head in that direction. Carol starts off angry and gets angrier; John starts off wimpy and gets wimpier.

I also felt that, for most of the play, Carol was a more physically-intimidating presence than John, but that may be because the staging is such that you’re almost always looking at someone’s back. The venue is small enough that the actors are more than capable of projecting into the far corners, but when you spend half of the performance only able to see one actor’s face, you end up missing all sorts of reactions, thoughts and feelings. Oleanna is about reactions, thoughts and feelings, so this represents a great loss.

I would like to give credit to sound designer Andrea Konazewski for finding a way to make the phone actually ring, rather than projecting the sound through overhead speakers. The lighting design by Paul and Colin Harris is simple, effective and compelling, although the final effect may be a touch too cute.

Despite our objections, my companion still felt that this show is worth seeing, especially if you aren’t someone already well-versed in heavy-duty theatre. While this is most definitely a serious play, it’s not a dull one, and the issues it explores remain highly relevant. Twenty years ago, it was about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill; today, it dovetails into our ongoing debate about how education should be delivered and the relationship between instructor and pupil.

And judging by the excited chatter at the intermission and afterwards, Jaybird has definitely found a receptive audience.


  • Oleanna runs until November 24th, 2012 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen East.
  • Remaining performances are nightly at 8:00.
  • Tickets are $19, $17 for students & seniors. Purchase online, in person at the venue, or by calling 416-845-9411.

Photograph of Jacqui Skeete and James R. Woods by Richard Burdett.