Playwright David Mamet understands how people really converse. He articulates the rhythms of the inarticulate, because he grasps how hard it is sometimes to talk and think at once, even to finish sentences. The mind and the emotions race so far ahead of the mouth.
Mamet also appreciates the fact that in actual conversation, people interrupt each other and that these interruptions can build fevered frustrations. And yet all of his dialogue crunches with style--his own peculiar formalities that raise his intense anger and acute sociopolitical observations to high art. None of his plays are simple, and all of them pack a serious wallop--there's always more to think about than you realize the first time you see or read one. That's why the staggering new production of Oleanna at the Denver Civic Theatre hasn't arrived any too soon after the Denver Center Theatre Company's own production last fall--it's great to see it again, to rethink the assertions Mamet makes so forcefully and, maybe, argue them out with less hysteria.
The DCTC's excellent production really did foster a kind of emotional excess. A lot of people left the theater enraged--and for very good reason. Other productions around the country have likewise sparked angry debate: People have reason to fear the repressive mindset of Oleanna's antagonist--an attitude that has been responsible for the deaths of millions under fascism, communism and religious persecutions throughout world history.
The Denver Civic show--a last-minute transplant from the University of Northern Colorado--is a more graceful production in some ways than the DCTC's. For one thing, John D. McNally, who plays the academic protagonist, really is a professor (at UNC) and invests his character with nuances of feeling and movement most actors might not even know about. He really looks, talks and walks like a teacher.
More important, McNally's direction allows the antagonist, Carol, a little more humanity. Catherine E. Worster develops her characterization with ingenious, monstrous innocence and insight--Carol is one sick chick, but though she doesn't know how to think and is utterly self-deceived about her own motivations, she isn't stupid. Even better, Worster doesn't allow us to believe she is cold-blooded.
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The whole first act seems completely innocuous--a pompous professor good-heartedly trying to help a childish student whose educational background has failed to prepare her for college. But the second act unleashes the ghoul--the girl has taken notes and, by virtue of her incredibly narrow perception, has turned the teacher's words into a weapon against him. She has accused him of sexual harassment and ruined his chance at tenure. The more he tries to extricate himself from the misunderstanding, the more entrenched and single-minded Carol becomes. The professor loses it and tries to physically restrain her. The third act descends into a nightmare. Carol accuses him of attempted rape. Now it's no longer the loss of tenure but prison that overshadows him.
Like many another Inquisitor, Carol insists that she has read his actions and reported the "facts" of the situation correctly. She insists that his sexist (really paternalistic) behavior constitutes sexual assertion over her. She doesn't see the difference between paternalism and sexual harassment, nor does she care about the human being she is trying to annihilate. She's the kind of person who, if living in a communist country, would happily rat on doctors and schoolteachers, getting them sent to re-education camps on the grounds that they were bourgeois intellectuals. Nothing John can do can make him pure enough to pass her own obscure rules of conduct and "acceptable" thinking. Carol confuses her own desire for power with virtue--and political correctness with social responsibility.
But though the danger here is real (a good many university professors have felt the fascist sting of P.C. persecutions), Mamet also exaggerates it. He does a magnificent job indicting power envy and inverted thinking in this play, and he also manages to indict an educational system that produces bright kids who can't think. But without denigrating what Mamet has accomplished, maybe it's time to ask where all the new plays are that indict actual sexual harassment and genuine subjugation of women. Thousands and thousands of women are raped and/or harassed every year, and jobs, promotions, grades and futures still often hang by the whim of a male in power.
Perhaps that subject is too pedestrian--too much a part of everyday life to incite public outrage. The threat of genuine harassment is greater than the nightmare Mamet describes--but it would take a genius to make the same kind of mark Oleanna makes on its audience.