Eye Of The Beholder

Mamet's Oleanna is open to a world of interpretations

click to enlarge EXTRA ATTENTION: Carol (Nancy Martin) gets some hands-on tutoring from her professor, John (Chris Taylor). - LEVI KAPLAN
EXTRA ATTENTION: Carol (Nancy Martin) gets some hands-on tutoring from her professor, John (Chris Taylor).

One of the many virtues of David Mamet's fine play Oleanna is its remarkable openness to interpretation. One can see it, for example, as an expression of Nietzsche's idea that there are no facts in this world, only interpretations. Or instead one can experience the play as a scathing comment on political correctness, as a cautionary tale about an innocent man crushed by certain stifling moral exigencies.

Or there's the tragic approach: Oleanna, in this view, is about a prince of the academy who through a tragic flaw, or miscalculation, falls from a height and earns a terrible self-knowledge. Or finally, one can see it - again Nietzsche comes to mind - as an essay on the will to power, on the human struggle for domination of the other, by whatever means.

Oleanna is so shrewdly contrived, so cleverly written, that it can stand all these constructions and others besides. And even without these approaches, the play is efficient, all-too-credible, suspenseful and unpredictable. In a first-rate production, it makes riveting theater.

Unfortunately, the current version by Acorn Theatre falls short of this mark, at least in its second act. But still the basic shape of the drama is there for construing. A college student calls upon her professor at his office to complain about her grade. She doesn't understand his lectures or his book; she feels stupid and isolated and begs him to help her.

The professor, though somewhat pompous, takes pity on the poor supplicant and tries to encourage her. He confides that he too, as a young man, was thought stupid, he too has problems (for example, work and marriage), he too has to jump through hoops for academic superiors.

But he thinks that her coming to his office shows pluck: come regularly, let him teach her there, and he'll give her an A for the semester. She still isn't convinced and eventually becomes hysterical; he grabs her by the shoulders and persuades her to calm down. At the end of Act One everything seems under control.

All that changes in Act Two. We learn that the student has filed charges against the professor for making unwanted advances. Everything that we've witnessed now takes on a different coloring: He put his hands on me, she has told the tenure committee; he said he had problems with his wife, and told a pornographic story (he did tell a mildly sexual anecdote when trying to make a point). He said that if I would stay alone with him in his office, he would change my grade to an A.

The professor is baffled, angry, worried. He may lose tenure; he may lose a new house that he and his wife were about to close on. He asks the student for a retraction but she resists, calling him sexist and elitist, vile and exploitative. Now she claims to speak not just for herself but for "my group."

An obsequious non-entity in Act One, the student has become a powerful opponent, a representative of a whole movement. In one further scene, she's about to file charges for attempted rape.

What does it mean? Well, as I've already suggested, Oleanna's significance is pretty much up to the spectator. I personally prefer the relativistic interpretation, the one that insists that a single series of events can be differently interpreted depending on the needs, beliefs and emotional state of the viewer.

Yes, it was clear that the professor was trying to calm the student, but who's to say that when he put his hands on her, it was entirely without sexual content? Yes, the off-color story seemed innocuous under the circumstances, but why did he choose that tale and not some other?

As Pirandello suggests in Six Characters in Search of an Author, our inner worlds differ so much from one another, we never can be sure what we're really communicating. The professor understood himself to be expressing concern and sympathy; the student understood him to be wielding power and sexual aggression. Where is the authority who can determine which is right? Only if God is watching can we imagine a final arbiter.

Nevertheless, we scrutinize the two actors, searching for clues. And it's here that the Acorn production eventually fails us. More precisely, Nancy Martin as the student Carol is convincing enough as an importunate victim in Act One, but in Act Two she's suddenly forceful and demanding and we can't for a moment understand how she made the change.

We need this transition to be psychologically credible, we need to believe that behind all the fretting of Carol's Act One was a desire to dominate which in Act Two finally reaches the surface, though accompanied by worry and not too sure on its feet.

Chris Taylor as professor John handles his changes more successfully, though his performance could also stand to be more complex. After all, John is an imperious man who suddenly finds himself having to play the beggar, and we should feel the great difficulty that he has accepting the reversal. But we don't, and as a result we begin to lose interest in both blatantly straightforward characters just when they should be most fascinating.

Levi Kaplan's direction is solid throughout (though I can't know to what extent the acting defects in Act Two can be attributed to him) and Jami Beasley's set of John's office is the most attractive environment ever built for Acorn Theatre during that company's brief existence. In fact, this is the first Acorn production that looks good, and I can only hope it's the first of many. Especially after the dreary sets of Death of a Salesman and The Good Doctor, I was starting to question the company's taste.

There's no doubting its taste in scripts this time around, though: Oleanna is a brilliant play about 10 things at once, including the subject of our inescapable subjectivity. Put 20 people in a room and they see 20 different rooms, each seen from a perspective that's entirely unique. But move this seemingly harmless test to a college professor's office, or a court of law, and you have a problem involving people's careers, perhaps their lives.

Most disturbing of all in a post-Freudian world, even the persons most directly involved in an action can't be sure of their intentions: Our motives are possibly hidden from ourselves, locked in our unconscious. We may be our own worst judges.

That's just one of the implications of this richly suggestive drama.

And it's one that this production - even with its black-and-white psychology - insists that we contemplate.

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