He Said, She Said 

Tennessee Rep tackles David Mamet’s two-person exploration of sexual harassment

Two-character plays are risky business. If either script or actors falter even a little, the staging can get tedious quickly. That’s certainly not the case with Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s new production of Oleanna.
Two-character plays are risky business. If either script or actors falter even a little, the staging can get tedious quickly. That’s certainly not the case with Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s new production of Oleanna, David Mamet’s fiery, contentious and at times aggravating referendum on sexual harassment, played with bravura intensity by David Alford and Marin Miller. A college professor named John takes a mid-term meeting with a student named Carol, who is failing his class. She appears average in intelligence at best, and she’s come ostensibly to plead her case, just another person going through the motions of higher education. Rather than focus more directly on her academic capabilities, John instead makes the fatal mistake of engaging Carol more personally. It’s not clear whether compassion or attraction is the goad, but John puts his life on hold to make time for the young woman. “I’m not your father,” he tells her, then proceeds to act the part of tweedy academic to the hilt, regaling her with educational philosophy and offering her another chance in his class, provided that she come to him for regular tutorials John’s de-meanor is laced with vocabulary that both confounds and annoys Carol—“dictum,” “predilection,” “paradigm”—clearly defining the scholarship gap that divides them. Then he crosses boundaries of propriety. Or does he? In a deft balancing act that appears truthful to Mamet’s purposeful ambiguity, Alford gives us a character who seems both pompous and almost naive at the same time. John confides in Carol some personal concerns. He relates a cheerfully tame joke that has a sexual set-up. Then, when Carol breaks down in apparent frustration over her future, he consoles her, a move that includes a gentle touch on the shoulder. John’s de-meanor is laced with vocabulary that both confounds and annoys Carol—“dictum,” “predilection,” “paradigm”—clearly defining the scholarship gap that divides them. Then he crosses boundaries of propriety. Or does he? In a deft balancing act that appears truthful to Mamet’s purposeful ambiguity, Alford gives us a character who seems both pompous and almost naive at the same time. John confides in Carol some personal concerns. He relates a cheerfully tame joke that has a sexual set-up. Then, when Carol breaks down in apparent frustration over her future, he consoles her, a move that includes a gentle touch on the shoulder. The confidently played, totally involving Act 1 concludes without overt conflict, but when Act 2 rings up, we learn that Carol has filed a sexual harassment claim. Miller’s transformation is slyly wrought: the mediocre student has become a petulant figure, empowered by the dictates of political correctness and emboldened by a canny inquisitiveness and combativeness that make her a forceful foe indeed. Suddenly, John’s entire professional life is on the line, and in a further series of meetings, the relationship spins out of control. Oleanna is Mamet at his agitating best. He sets forth a modern proposition—what exactly defines harassment?—then cagily obscures the ground rules by which we might arrive at an answer. We understand clearly the presupposition that individuals communicate differently, and in this regard we can see that the professor, who may simply have been born a generation too early, has yet to learn a new set of standards for interacting with his students. Or maybe it’s simply that he’s male, in which case Mamet—author of American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross and other plays that focus on exclusive relationships among men—works a potent cynicism into his subtext. Juxtaposed is the student, whose motivations have a real societal context, even if we wonder whether she’s completely grounded in all the implications of her unique situation. Miller’s smoldering anger bursts forth with a particularly moving credibility, even as, in yet another cynical Mametian turn, she almost comes off as an undercover agent for militant feminism. René Cope-land’s direction is smartly tuned in to Mamet’s hostility, and her actors are totally committed to the multileveled, often very suspenseful, pulse of his dramatic scenario. The play, originally written to be presented in three acts, is artificially reduced to two here, a situation that is not ideal but proves workable enough. Oleanna is a feast of manipulative conjecture, but therein lies its power. Gender, economics, status and individual rights are all issues that lie at the heart of its inspiration, and Mamet, unsurprisingly, gives us no intellectually satisfying ending. The audience’s understanding of the play may ultimately depend on whether they view the author as a provocateur or a reactionary. Regardless, the conclusion packs a wallop, and the Rep production is so good that it bears revisitation.

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