Tenure Mercies

When the two cast members in Actors Theatre of Phoenix's production of David Mamet's Oleanna start talking to each other in act one, it sounds forced. Away they chatter in the herky-jerky verbal rhythms for which Mamet is so celebrated, finishing each other's sentences and not finishing their own, taking odd pauses, emphasizing idiosyncratic words.

It's supposed to have the ring of overheard conversation, but it sounds overrehearsed and drained of spontaneity. It sounds exactly as if it came off the page--you can hear the ellipses, the italics, the quotation marks. It's less like Mamet than like a bad student-playwright's imitation of Mamet.

But by the end of the evening, I had come to the conclusion that whatever is wrong with the play is Mamet's fault, and whatever is right about it is to the credit of the actors and of the director, Matthew Wiener. Staged under Paul A. Black's glaring lights on Gage Williams' cleverly stark set--a square platform that gives the creepy suggestion of a boxing ring--the production overcomes its stilted opening and, in the end, makes more sense of this annoying play than I would have thought likely.

Oleanna is allegedly about the "PC wars" now being waged on American college campuses (and other venues). A female student (Melinda Thomas) comes to the office of a 40ish professor (Kirk Jackson) in a dither because she can't grasp the course text--a book by the prof himself--and is in danger of failing. The professor is on the verge of tenure and in the process of buying a house; harried as he is, he's feeling expansive.

His book, ironically, is a polemic against authoritarianism in education, so when he sees how upset the student is, the professor is moved to calm her down--he tells her that he'll change her grade to an "A" if she'll come by his office a few more times. The student asks him why she's to have this consideration and his explanation is simply, "I like you." He also illustrates a point with a sexually tinged anecdote of rather vague relevance.

We immediately recognize the trouble he's setting himself up for, and we're meant to see that he doesn'tmean any of this as a come-on, at least not consciously. Nonetheless, by act two, the student--encouraged by what she ominously refers to as "my group"--has filed a complaint with the tenure committee. The professor meets with her again in an attempt to talk her into dropping the matter. She refuses, and when she tries to leave his office, the frantic professor physically restrains her. In the third act, another meeting between the two, the situation escalates.

The trouble with Oleanna on the page and in the Mamet-directed film version of 1994 was that it seemed we were being asked to direct our sympathies toward the professor. Sure, maybe he was a bit pompous, a bit arrogant in his carelessness, but he didn't deserve to lose his tenure over it. After all, he wasn't really making a pass at the student.

This approach rendered the student's character incoherent--in act one, she seems like an inarticulate, panicky ding-a-ling; in the subsequent acts, her cool summaries of the professor's supposed sexist elitism could put Andrea Dworkin to shame. Eventually, it's suggested that all this trouble was calculated to entrap the professor, as if the student is a modern version of a femme fatale from a film noir--she's even kept notes of his mild flirtations with other students. This deck-stacking trivializes the play's alleged theme by making the professor nothing more than the dupe of a conspiracy and the student an academic extortionist--or the tool of extortionists. Either way, her character doesn't add up. The play ends with the student saying the same line twice--once to the professor, once to herself. It's Mamet's pitifully clumsy attempt at having it both ways; the ultimate in bullshit equivocations.

ATP's production can't overcome this flaw--the student is a miserable, unplayable role, and Thomas can only try to maintain her dignity as an actress--which she does. Where Wiener is able to findCR>CR> some new depth in the play is in the character of the professor. Here, he is not assumed to be just a poor, misunderstood, nice guy.

As played by Jackson, he's such a complacent, self-delighted, half-asleep ass that his sufferings seem, almost, an appropriate comeuppance. By making the professor a preening poseur, Wiener and Jackson succeed in making us see the conflict from the other side.

In Mamet's own version of Oleanna, for instance, when the student expresses offense at the professor's use of a learned vocabulary, we're immediately meant to see it as the dumbing-down of education in the name of not making anyone feel inferior. She asks why he doesn't use the word "model" instead of "paradigm." In Mamet's version, we may want to say: Because, you whiny bitch, "paradigm" is more accurate and specific than "model," which has several possible meanings--ever heard of a dictionary?

In the ATP version, the same scene actually can make you stop and think, gee, maybe he is using "big words" as tools of aggression. Maybe, when he insists that she answer his questions without consulting her notes, it isn't because he wants her to think for herself, but because he wants to keep her flustered. Just maybe he really is a bully--not sexually, but intellectually. This possibility makes the final scene seem, for the first time, to grow naturally out of the conflict, rather than out of the need for a strong curtain.

This Oleanna isn't about sexual harassment, it's about the abuse of power in academia. The appearance that the professor isn't a sexual predator here seems a less persuasive defense for his innocence of flaunting the power of his position. However implausible the student's character may be, the ATP production makes us see that the academic stakes for a person in her position really are too high to be in the hands of a buffoon like this.

There's no denying that Oleanna is effective in raw theatrical terms. Its inconsistencies of thought wouldn't be so maddening if it were not such CR>a gCR>rueling, sweat-inducing melodrama. None of this tension is lost in ATP's version, but much valid ambiguity is added--Wiener and his cast give force to what's good in the play while helping us see past what's phony and sour and trumped up. They give the play a balance in performance that it only pretends to have in its text.

Actors Theatre of Phoenix's
production of Oleanna continues through Sunday, March 31, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thrills.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead