Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
Set in an office designed by Ardean Landhuis and Kate McVay with exposed brick walls that cleverly foreshadow the revelations that are to come, Oleanna begins with Carol (Sara Elizabeth Grant) and John (Todd Bruno), a student and professor, respectively, who appear onstage from black. The fact that neither character has an entrance and that lighting designer Landhuis introduces them abruptly is dramatically poignant because this conceals who and what they are; few preconceived notions can be formed. First they aren't there, and then they are. No mood, tone or ambiance is set. The audience must take them as they are.
John is in the middle of a phone conversation while his wife while Carol waits for him. What is said and subsequently not said and the actors' reactions to both are a great theatrical platform to demonstrate the skill of the actors. They breathe life into the Mamet speak, a style of cynical, street-smart, edgy and effective dialogue incorporating a lot of interruptions that the playwright is renowned for. Mamet revisits this style often, sometimes cutting the tension with this device while other times, using it as an explosive express ramp.
John, clad in slacks, a sweater, and a shirt buttoned almost to the top, invites fledgling student Carol, dressed unassumingly and youthfully in casual pants and tennis shoes, into his office to discuss her progress in his course. As the play goes on, we learn that Carol is extremely frustrated and tortured by the material and her performance in the class. Despite doing everything the syllabus prescribes and more, she can't wrap her head around the subject matter or John's expounding upon it. If you have been an educator like John or a student in Carol's shoes, it's easy to sympathize with her, not only because of the situation but because Grant does a good job of drawing you into her character's agony. When she grimaces and paces about the office, we can almost feel her anguish.
Despite Carol's repeated declarations of stupidity and John's lack of time (he is closing on a new house paid for by the promise of tenure), John is determined to help Carol overcome her failures. He even goes the extra mile of guaranteeing her an A if she continues to meet with him, and regales her with stories from his youth that she can identify with. A few more phone calls tell the audience that he and his wife are not only closing on a house, but there's a surprise party for his tenure achievement waiting for him at the new property. But John perseveres with Carol. He simply cannot leave her forlorn with her mind in shambles. He valiantly pursues her enlightenment. As they continue to talk, it appears that they are beginning a friendship based on mutual understanding; she, a hungry student looking for a chance, and he, a self-sacrificing teacher eager to give it. But is it really as it seems?
While act one ends on a hopeful note for both characters, acts two and three prove to be far more grim. John and Carol's relationship seems to change from amicable to tense in no time flat. Not only is there a transition in behavior and words; there is a shift in their appearance as well. Whereas costume designer Myria Jean Baum dresses them in expected apparel befitting their roles in act one, their clothing seems to match their new personas and positions of power in acts two and three. Carol goes from carefree and to mature and ladylike, exchanging her sneakers for heels. The once conservative John becomes more relaxed and vulnerable, shedding his sweater and revealing more skin. A massive transfer of power takes place when Carol takes the scribblings from her notebook to the tenure board, and they prove to be on far more than the class subject at hand. Figuring out what went wrong, what was premeditated, and who these chameleons really are will either be your joy or your pain.
Depending on the strength of your ideals and your opinions on gender and class relations, Oleanna could be the mind-bending and dividing experience you may not have been prepared for. Previous productions of this play have gotten men and women so riled up that couples have left theatres screaming at one another. If anything, the characters will provoke you in the same manner that John tells Carol it is his job as a teacher to do. The ambiguity of this play has been compared to the Anita Hill - Clarence Thomas debate in 1991. Who is telling the truth? Under Rosalie Grant's superb direction of these characters, it's not so easy to tell.
Whether your reaction is anger, sadness or amusement, Oleanna does a good job of exposing the underbelly of a false utopian society. Not everything is as it seems, and just because there is peace and acceptance now, it doesn't mean that an uprising is not brewing for tomorrow. All is not equal or well, and some are disgruntled enough to launch a deadly strike.
The Evening Star production of Oleanna will be appearing through October 8th, 2017, at Sol Theatre located at 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, FL 33431. Show times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. For tickets and information please call 561-447-8829 or visit www.eveningstarproductions.org.