Theater Review: Marvelous Performances In Theater Barn’s ‘Oleanna’

RIDGEFIELD — When four people see a play and then spend the 45-minute ride home arguing about it, and then the next day continue the discussion with family and friends who didn’t get to see it, well that must mean something, doesn’t it?

David Mamet’s plays tend to be compellingly obscure … or perhaps obscurely compelling. Certainly the point is not obvious, but the delivery is enthralling. Such was the case with Ridgefield Theater Barn’s recent black box production of Mamet’s Oleanna. The two-weekend production was offered July 12-19.

Director Maryann Arcoleo-Koltun got marvelous performances from her two actors — Harry Lipstein as John the Professor, and Samantha Holomakoff as Carol the undergraduate — in this work that on one level meets Aristotle’s prescription for tragedy, while on other levels could be seen as is a study in the dynamics of power, an expose of sexism, and finally, a devastating satire of academia.

The play takes place in the office of John, a tweedy, leather patches on the elbows college professor who seems to be at the pinnacle of both his career and his domestic life. He has published a book (with his smiling photo displayed prominently on the back jacket) explaining his philosophy of Education (which he uses as the text for his course), and he is at this moment up for tenure at this solid university. So assured is he that tenure will be granted, with all of its accompanying economic security, that John and his wife are in the process of buying a bigger and better house in an upscale neighborhood where he intends to send their son to private school.

Enter Carol, a mousy, stammering freshman who is worried about her grade in his course. She doesn’t understand what he wants. She is unhappy about the comments on her paper. She listens to his lectures and takes notes. But she doesn’t understand.

Constantly interrupted by telephone calls from his wife, his lawyer, and his realtor, John attempts what Aristotle would have called a “tragic action, putting his educational philosophy into practice by using this one-on-one meeting to give this young woman his time and attention, explaining the material to her until she does understand.

Instead, she perseverates in her claim that she doesn’t understand, working herself up into a frantic state until finally John takes her by the shoulders, sits her down in a chair, and in a burst of hubris, impulsively offers her a deal: Forget about the paper. Don’t worry about the exam. Come to my office and chat, on a regular basis, until I can make it all clear to you. You do that and you’ll earn an A in the course.

Next scene is a month or so later. Less mousy and more articulate, Carol returns to the office, less for a conference than to confirm the fact that John has been denied tenure, due to the letter she wrote to them accusing him of sexual harassment. In disbelief, he tries to convince her of his innocence, but the conversation is clouded by more phone calls, and the news that he has lost the new house.

As he demands that she stay until he can fully explain himself, she flees from the office, screaming for help.

In the last scene a disheveled, tieless John is clearing his desk when Carol arrives once more. This time she is informing him that on the basis of that second meeting she has brought rape and battery charges against him, and that the university has fired him.

Comfortable in his own position of high estate, it had never occurred to John that his students could be anything but respectful and appreciative of his authority. He did not realize that this hapless female could be seething with resentment at the socio-economic linguistic gap between them. Taking diligent notes, she uses the mechanics of his own world against him and topples him completely. Now Carol has the power, and it’s no wonder that her hair and her posture and her cleavage express this so proudly.

Director Arcoleo-Koltun mentioned in her notes that Oleanna was written in the aftermath of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, and there were some parties in our discussions afterwards who felt that Carol was actually justified in her complaints — that if she felt John’s behavior to be sexually harassing, then it was — and that he deserved what he got.

Personally (and as a total believer in Anita Hill), I interpreted this play a bit differently. Carol claimed she was desperate for an education, which was why she had struggled and sacrificed to come to college, and why she was taking his course. John’s book (and his whole raison d’etre) was a revolt against the rigid, conventional, cut, paste and spit it back system that had frustrated him as a student. This was the wisdom he was trying to convey.

But what exactly was the subject of this class, with its jargon-laden lectures and papers? Just because she wanted an education was not a wise reason for Carol to sign up for an Education Course. Listening to John’s pontifical ramblings and narcissistic focus on his own life as the basis for his message made me recall the beloved old adage: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach teachers!

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