Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Oleanna
The Matchbox Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of I Come from Arizona and Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn


Paul Somers and Tara Lucchino
Photo Courtesy of The Matchbox Theater
It is 1992. John (Paul Somers) is a college professor on the cusp of middle age. He relishes the intellectual autonomy his position grants him in a way that enables his arrogance and self-referencing pedagogy to flourish. Carol (Tara Lucchino) is a young woman who has struggled to make it to college in the belief that it will equip her to live a better life. She is lost at sea in John's class, unable to make sense of the lectures or texts, including one John himself wrote, and is frantic over the prospect of failing. Carol pleads for help, though in a manner that paints herself as a lost cause.

At first, John—distracted by phone calls about a pending home purchase—subscribes to Carol's dismal prognosis, disingenuously telling her "you're an incredibly bright girl," before pointing out that her essay is drivel. Then, on some speck of awareness, John pivots: he will help her! He will give her private tutorials and instead of an F, promises her an A. He tells her that none of it matters: the rules of higher education are arbitrary and meaningless, no more than a form of hazing. When Carol, startled by his thesis, asks him why, if higher education is so bad, he teaches, he responds with no hint of irony "because I love it."

While all of this is being said in David Mamet's bracing Oleanna, much more than words is being exchanged. Gestures, changes in tone, small actions, and offhand remarks that seem unrelated prove very much to be part of the power dynamics between John and Carol. She returns in act two, having seized a large degree of John's power from him. Unable to believe this could happen, John struggles to regain his control and in the process, digs a deeper hole for himself. By the end, Carol has amassed a power that cannot be denied. The more John fights back, the more he proves her case.

Oleanna has been given a galvanizing mounting by The Matchbox Theater, a small but formidable young company led by Douglas Stewart, who directs this production. Mamet's play appeared in 1992, just after the Anita Hill - Clarence Thomas hearings for Thomas's confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice. Hill famously accused Thomas of sexual harassment in their workplace. Though Mamet had already written the play before those hearings, its timing gave it the bearing of an urgent town crier call, sounding an alarm regarding the murky waters that separate civil behavior from harassment and abuse. It raised challenging questions as to whose perception of the same narrative is correct and what consequence should befall on one found guilty. New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote "Oleanna is likely to provoke more arguments than any play this year."

The Matchbox Theater, likewise, announced its production before the recent debacle concerning the confirmation of Brett Cavanaugh to that same court, and again, its timing bestows Oleanna with a surge of consequence. Oleanna is known for leaving audience members at odds over what they saw: who was in the right? In 2018, 26 years of harassment policies, personnel training, and talk show discussions later, and a year after #metoo broke new waves of outrage, does the landscape on which we view sexual harassment and violence look any different? Are our judgments more enlightened and more even keeled, or has entrenched partisanship further distorted our vision?

Stewart directs the storm that builds between John and Carol from isolated lightning bolts—John's agitation focused on his real estate deal, Carol on self-deprecating wallow—into a tempest of engagement, as Carol growing storm force batters down on John's receding shore. His sure-footed handling of this volatile material builds incrementally to its appalling climax, with the audience perched on the edge of their seats. Stewart and assistant director Marc Christian Berg have designed a well-realized set that looks every bit a college faculty office, with books and binders crammed on the shelves, fitted upon the tiny stage at Matchbox to increase the intensity of the duel that plays out within.

Both actors give riveting performances in which the characters circle one another in orbits ordained by their gender, their positions, and the tools at their disposal. They make certain neither character is likeable, yet they keep us enthralled. Lucchino evolves from fawning to ferocious, portraying Carol's growing strength and convictions through bolstered posture and articulation. Even the timbre of her voice grows in force. With the emboldened manner in which she refers to "my group," an unidentified support system that is backing Carol, Lucchino conveys not only strength but emergent leadership in this once self-effacing woman. When, heady with the intoxication of power, Carol overplays her hand, Lucchino illustrates the thin line between avenger and abuser with cold assurance.

Sommers appeared as Finbar in Matchbox Theater's chilling production of The Weirlast year, and both characters share the quality of a self-satisfied man whose sense of achievement exceeds their reality. However, as John, he sees that reality crumble before his eyes. Sommers conveys John's easy acceptance of the power his position grants him, as he tosses out GRE vocabulary words with smarmy arrogance and turns Carol's troubles into a testimony on his own rise to success—totally oblivious to how his attempts to be supportive demean her. When his comfortable life is threatened, Sommers keenly depicts the growing alarm and panic, descending into dark waters in which all he can do is flail against the downward pull.

Early in Oleanna, while Carol is waiting for John to wrap up the phone call about his pending home purchase, she hears him use the phrase "a term of art." The first thing she asks when the call is concluded is "What is a term of art?" John explains, it is a word or phrase that may have a broad meaning in common usage, but a legally specific meaning in a particular context. It seems, then, that Mamet fills the play with examples. John blithely says everything Carol later accuses him of saying—she has invented nothing—but these same words are given specific meaning to make a case against him.

One may judge that John's adversary is the carelessness of his own words and actions as much as it is Carol. Is John assailed by Carol or his own dismissal of standards? Mamet leaves us to discuss—and argue—questions from 1992 that largely remain unresolved in 2018. The Matchbox Theater gives us a blistering opportunity to continue these essential arguments.

Oleanna, through November 4, 2018, at The Matchbox Theater, 5401 ½ Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis MN. For information contact www.thematchboxtheater.com.

Playwright: David Mamet; Producer and Director: Douglas Stewart; Assistant Director: Marc Christian Berg; Set Design: Marc Christian Berg and Douglas Stewart; Lighting and Sound Design: Monte Monteleagre; Costumes: The Group; Stage Manager: Sammy Johnson.

Cast: Tara Lucchino (Carol) and Paul Somers (John).


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