Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Oleanna and How I Learned to Drive
Those are the words of college professor John (David Barlow) to his student Carol (Blair Baker) in the opening minutes of David Mamet's Oleanna. Bristol Riverside Theatre's excellent new production, directed with a satisfying urgency by Keith Baker, makes one ponder the truth of that statement, not to mention the meaning of words like "desire" and "help."
John claims to put the concerns of his students first, but as Oleanna unfolds, he's repeatedly interrupted in his office by phone calls updating him on the status of the new house he's buying. We soon surmise that it's all a condescending charadehe cares more about that house, and about the raise he's about to get when he's granted tenure, then about his students. But now he has to deal with Carol, a student who is failing because she can't comprehend the meaning of his course. John says he'll do all he can to make sure she succeeds, and at one point he even puts a comforting arm around as she sits sobbing in despair. But when act two begins, the roles have reversed: Carol has lodged a complaint with the school's tenure committee, claiming that John's actions were sexual harassmentand, later, sexual violence.
Mamet's play is designed to be provocative, and it certainly provoked the audience on opening night; I could overhear people whispering arguments about the issues even before the first act had ended. And Mamet's use of language is, as usual, masterful; Carol and John talk at each other, not to each other, and often cut off each other's sentences. When John answers the phone, he tells the caller "I can't talk now"and that's true in more ways than one.
Both performers are superb at showing the extremes of these charactersthe lofty ideals they claim to uphold and the depths to which they sink. But those extremes are a little hard to swallow, especially in Carol's case. In act one, she's a meek, dim nonentity, uncomprehending of every issue she's presented with, but in act two she's so brash, so demanding, so wise in her understanding of human nature that she almost seems like a different person. John transforms by the end of the play too, but we get to see his transition, and that makes him a more sympathetic character. (Barlow is especially good at showing the desperation in John's collapse.) The end result is that while Oleanna ostensibly presents a balanced view of both sides of the sexual harassment debate, the deck is so heavily stacked in John's favor that the balance is lost. One comes to question Carol's motives for prosecuting Johnand, as a result, Mamet's motives for portraying Carol (and the movement she embodies) in such an unfavorable light.
It all takes place on Julia C. Lee's beautifully cluttered set, a den of sky-high shelves filled with books, papers, and antique radios. But we never hear what comes out of those radios; they're the only things without power in this play about a power struggle.
Oleanna runs through October 14, 2012, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pa. Ticket are $30 - $45, with discounts available for students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100, online at www.brtstage.org, or by visiting the box office.
This is the third How I Learned To Drive I've seen (and the second this year), and its Li'l Bit, Victoria Rose Bonito, is probably a decade younger than the previous actresses I've seen play the role. She's very good, and is most convincing when she's at her most girlish in the flashback scenes. Ahren Potratz plays Uncle Peck, and his youth works against him; he appears slight and passive, and he never seems like the authority figure that a young girl would turn to for comfort. There's a three-person "Greek Chorus" that plays multiple roles, and Seth Schmitt-Hall is the standout in this group, getting lots of laughs playing everything from a teenaged wallflower to a randy grandfather.
Shawn Kairschner's direction is crisp and efficient, although a scene in which Uncle Peck teaches a nephew how to fish seems rushed, never settling into the relaxed Southern rhythms that can give the scene a lot of weight. The video projections are clever, especially when they use a driving scene from the movie Lolita to make the point that Li'l Bit's problem is not a new one. (Andrew Cameron Zahn is credited as videographer.)
Even in an imperfect production, How I Learned To Drive retains its ability to shock and disturb.
How I Learned To Drive runs through October 7, 2012, at Villanova Theatre, located in Vasey Hall on the Villanova University campus in Villanova, Pa. Tickets run from $21 to $25, with discounts available for seniors, students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 610-519-7474, online at www.theatre.villanova.edu, or by visiting the box office.