Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Also see Dean's review of The Wait
There is nothing "academic" about this academic conflict between a middle-aged teacher and his female student. To emphasize the rawness of the combat, the set is the teacher's office surrounded by the ropes of a boxing ring, and each of the three acts begins and ends with the dinging of a boxing bell. About the only accoutrement that is missing is the gloves, but of course this is a fight with the gloves off.
This 1992 David Mamet Broadway play has all kinds of contemporary echoes in the age of #metoo when elderly authoritarian males in every field are being confronted for sexual misbehavior by women over whom they exercise power. However, Oleanna is not really a drama about sex. It is about power, about who exercises it and how it is exercised. That the battlefield in this power struggle is gender rather than something elsereligion, race, wealth, politicsis merely an artifact of our times.
The production is superb in every respect, one that Albuquerque's oldest black box theater, the 42-year-old Vortex, can be proud of. Marty Epstein's direction gives free rein to the talents of his two able and experienced sparring partners, Bob Jesser as the heavy-set, middle-aged college professor John, and Zoey Reese, as Carol, his slender, young, gender-uncertain student.
Depicting an in-depth, complex role is always a difficult challenge for an actor, but the greater challenge is showing a character in the process of changing. This, however, is the feat that both of these two fine actors, especially Jesser, pull off with seeming ease. At the beginning of the pay, the pompous, patronizing John is clearly in charge and Carol, who comes across as neither knowledgeable nor particularly intelligent, is sad, weak and dependent. As the play progresses, however, their roles shift until by the third act there is a 180-degree reversal, with Carol dominating the man she has destroyed. "You do not have the power," Carol asserts at a turning point in the second act.
Mamet's clever subtleties include the two characters swapping lines between the first and third acts. In the beginning, she repeatedly says, "I don't understand," a line he uses in the last act. In the beginning he gives her a test and in the last act she gives him a reading list. "I am not interested in feelings" is another line swapped between the two, and so is the repeated line, "You are angry."
In some respects the play tries to equate the behavior of this ill-matched pair, with the equation of dominance and humiliation shifting from one to the other. But to my mind there is no real equivalence. This is a play written by a male author, and his male teacher John has a depth and resonance, and consequently an empathy, that the female student Carol fails to attain. You understand John's callousness as the product of his age, preoccupations and weaknesses.
But Carol is quite different. Perhaps the key moment in the play occurs at the end of the first act when Carol says she wants to tell John something important about her life, something she has never told anyone else. At that point the phone rings, and John answers it. During his lengthy conversation, she stands to one side and silently sobs. Carol never has a chance to resume her confession. We never find out what Carol's secret is, and thus we never fully come to understand her strange combination of fear and rage.
This is a play about class as much as gender. Carol describes how much attending college means to her, about how hard she worked and how much she sacrificed to get there, about how college is the culmination of struggle, although we never hear anything of the specifics of her struggles. "You have no idea what it cost me to come this school," she says. Unfortunately, neither does the audience.
John, however, denigrates college as a meaningless exercise in processing useless information and rewarding the process with meaningless grades. For him, college provides a job that enables him to maintain a middle-class lifestyle; for her it is a ticket that will enable her to enter the middle class.
While John's problems are present on the stage, in phone conversations and confrontations with Carol, Carol's problems remain vague and are only implicit in her indirect comments. I would like to see a similar story in the hands of a female author. I have a hunch it would be told entirely differently. In Manet's hands, Carol is a far less sympathetic, even a far less comprehensible character than John. Perhaps it would require a female playwright to reverse that particular balance.
Oleanna is the kind of play that provokes intense thoughts and emotions. A director's note reports that audiences have booed actors during curtain calls. It is possible to argue endlessly over extenuating circumstances that do or do not justify the behavior of John and Carol. "We have to agree that we are human," John pleads desperately, forlornly to Carol, who does not agree. What is not arguable is that the issues raised in this play have been troubling us for a long time and will continue to do so far into the future.
Oleanna, through September 9, 2018, 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque NM. For reservations and more information go to Vortex.org or call 505-247-8600.