Oleanna is a play about deception. Does truth depend upon eyewitnesses — in this case, the audience — or on the assertions of the people involved? The truth is further complicated by a clever introduction from artistic director Colby Coren. He tells us that, depending upon where we sit, we’ll have a different perspective on what unfolds between a professor and student in the Hendersonville Community Theatre’s production of Oleanna, which runs through Sunday, May 12.
Under the direction of Lora Theobolt, David Mamet’s two-person play is staged as theater-in-the-round. Theobolt wants the audience to question its conclusions. What did we witness in this taut production about a male professor’s interactions with a female student?.
The entire play takes place in the office of John (played by Tate Albert). Carol (McKenzie Eury) doesn’t understand his lectures, and she’s failing the course. She asks, with more and more desperation, what she can do. Meanwhile, the university is considering John for tenure, and he is trying to buy a house. His office phone rings and rings. It is a secondary irritant that disrupts his conversations with Carol.
The set design and the placement of the actors in a small space allow the audience to see only part of what is happening. We must depend on the subtle cues of body language and tone of voice. What did John mean by his offer to give Carol an A for the course if she would come to his office regularly?
Albert plays John as an overwhelmed academic whose success is frustratingly marked by the approval of peers he doesn’t respect and a wife he can’t satisfy. Albert portrays John as sympathetic but so unguarded as to endanger himself.
Eury’s Carol has her own vulnerabilities: doubts about her intelligence and whether she belongs in college at all. She is smart enough, however, to write down her observations and snippets of what John says during their meetings. As the show continues, she and John circle each other, almost like two predators.
There is a sensation of the metaphorical walls closing in during this play. That’s the power of point-of-view staging for Oleanna. Each student-teacher meeting escalates into a confrontation. Carol claims the problem is John’s power over her and over students, and she inserts herself into his tenure committee’s deliberations. John thinks he can negotiate with her, but Carol feels empowered as a spokesperson for her “group”: She’s speaking for them now, and they have grievances. A reckoning is coming, yet the climax of the play is still shocking and visceral.
Mamet wrote this play in 1992, and the topics appear even more vivid and relevant now. Oleanna is a masterful production, one that casts the audience as a witness and a participant since, in viewing, we think we know what happened and why. Or do we?
WHERE: Hendersonville Community Theatre Second Stage, 229 S. Washington St., hendersonvilletheatre.org
WHEN: Performances run through Sunday, May 12. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. $15 -$20.