David Mamet’s play Oleanna is staged with unique conviction in the intimate space of Asheville Community Theatre’s 35below. The play, originally premiering in 1992, was controversial for its day following the media heat of the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas controversy. Oleanna deals with accusations of sexual harassment from college student Carol, and the suspicious intentions of her up-and-coming professor, John. The play dares us to choose a side.
In true Mamet style, the plot is secondary to the boldness of the writer’s message. That is what makes him brilliant. It is also what make’s pieces like Oleanna (and his rattling, racially charged play, Edmond) a challenge. In this interpretation, Mamet’s spitfire dialogue still crackles, even across the tamer lips of Kier Klepzig as John, who turns in an interesting performance with a somewhat comedic tone.
However, this production belongs to Chelsey Lee Gaddy who plays Carol. In the beginning, she sits before us like a young and meek Toni Collette but is soon chiseled into a towering Tilda Swinton. Gaddy’s icy and bitter portrayal drives nails into the coffin of John’s future. When Carol nearly opens up about a secret, we witness Gaddy’s face flush and we feel the tremors inside her body. This kind of acting is what up-close stages, such as 35below, were meant for. Gaddy’s performance alone is a must-see — her character is a true radical who will stop at nothing to win a battle of wits. Gaddy is sensational and, thankfully, gives the show a much needed electrical surge.
In fact, the utter strength of Gaddy’s character makes this particular production feel one-sided. In this case, that is OK. She’s so spellbinding that we catch ourselves rooting for the relentless Carol — right or wrong. It makes us feel good (and a little dirty) when she uses John like a tool and he becomes defenseless. We side with her malice, which makes us question our own morals when John cracks.
One has to wonder though, how intense the tug-of-war between the two characters might have been had director Chris Allison dug deeper into the realms of the male character. The undercurrent of sexual tension the show desperately craves is unfortunately missing. However, Allison’s rigidly cool ’90s vibe flickers about, the music taking us back to a specific timeframe. It’s good to feel the pulse of the Reality Bites generation again. It should also be noted that the stage managing of Bonnie Allen was on point and the opening night crowd, on an appropriately cold evening, seemed very pleased with the weight of the play.
As written, Oleanna forces us to contemplate our thoughts on other cases of sexual harassment and alleged rape. Where should the line be drawn, and what is going too far? What truths do we not see behind the closed door? As unfortunate as it may be, the bad stuff is always easier to believe. We just happen to be the observers in the room for this story.
WHERE: 35below, ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Jan. 24. Fridays and Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, at 2:30 p.m. $15