None Too Fragile's Production of David Mamet's Still-Timely 'Oleanna' Mostly Hits the Mark

But it doesn't quite capture the full complexity of the script

None Too Fragile's Production of David Mamet's Still-Timely 'Oleanna' Mostly Hits the Mark
Photo by Sean Derry

This may not come as a shock to you, but relations between men and women—especially when there are power disparities involved—can be dicey and sometimes injurious to both parties. For example, consider the 1991 Congressional hearings involving the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Anita Hill testified to Thomas's alleged on-the-job sexual harassment, a claim that didn't stop him from becoming one of the five justices who now are busy rewriting the constitution.

A year after those hearings, the play "Oleanna" by David Mamet opened, a piece that dealt with a similar confrontation, this time between a male professor named John and his young female student, Carol. The ensuing three-decade span has done little to lessen the power of this script, the dynamics of which we have seen played out again and again in high-profile scandals involving Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, NBC's Matt Lauer, and many others. "Oleanna" is now in production at None Too Fragile Theatre in Akron.

Mamet's work is a devilish concoction featuring his trademark latticework dialogue, ripe with unfinished thoughts and hairpin turns. It's a difficult 80-minute theatrical obstacle course for the director and actors. And while this production sticks the landing in the last few minutes, it suffers from an overly bland opening scene during which the characters must establish their identities and vulnerabilities.

Carol visits John's office at the unnamed college to address her failing grade on a recent assignment. She is distressed that this may end her path to higher education, a thought John dismisses with sarcasm and a volley of put-downs directed at education in general. Clearly, John is one of those profs who luxuriates in the sublime flow of his own erudition. And while Carol is suitably intimidated by his performative dickishness, she also shows a spine by repeatedly challenging him on small points—a harbinger of things to come.

While most plays have acting beats that need to be hit for the audience to understand what's happening, a Mamet play has regular beats along with flurries of micro-beats and nano-beats that must be delivered with deft shadings of this word or that syllable. If those smaller beats are not handled carefully, a Mamet play can deflate like a delicate souffle before the playwright is ready to smush the whole thing against a wall.

Performed in three scenes, we see how the relationship between Carol and John devolves, as she accuses him of unseemly behavior, based in part on a mis-perceived physical touch. John, who was initially preoccupied with buying a new house and celebrating his almost-official tenure track, is flummoxed and turns angry. Each continues to triggers the other until the play ends with a shock.

In this staging, the missed beats early on take their toll. As John, Doug Sutherland has the rumpled superiority of a professor, but too many of his line readings don't carry enough weight. For one tiny example, when he says to Carol, "I have no desire. I have no desire other than to help you," those two sentences should indicate vastly different thoughts, especially in the context of what is to come. But Sutherland delivers them without shading, eliminating some helpful nuance.

In the role of Carol, Sarah Blubaugh trembles suitably as the seemingly overwhelmed student. But early on, her strength to challenge her prof when he uses the phrase "a term of art" comes out of the blue. By neglecting the small beats early on, it takes her much longer to establish Carol's true and surprising character.

It is all overseen by Sean Derry, one of the finest theater directors in northeast Ohio. But in this case, he and the actors don't find their footing until later. As a result, the audience prematurely comes to their own conclusions about who these two characters are.

It shouldn't be as simple as concluding that John is a despicable predator or Carol is a privileged, overly sensitive avatar of political correctness. This play should end with question marks, not exclamation points. Mamet is a gifted writer, and he is entitled to the full complexity that "Oleanna" can offer and that this production only occasionally delivers.

Oleanna
Through October 22 at None Too Fragile Theatre, 732 W. Exchange St., Akron, nonetoofragile.com, 330-962-5547.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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