Theater Review: ‘Oleanna’ Ivy Tech’s ‘Oleanna’ a look at power wars and human miscommunication

Posted: Monday, August 26, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 6:20 am, Mon Aug 26, 2013.

By Doris Lynch
H-T Reviewer

The days of the diminutive, needful college coed (why are only women called this?) and the all-knowing, patriarchal, white male professor are over. Or are they? In Ivy Tech’s two-night run of “Oleanna” at the John Waldron Arts Center, David Mamet’s play on sexual harassment gives a divided look at this important subject without any clear answers. Meanwhile, the mayor of San Diego has been forced to step down because of multiple sexual harassment complaints.

But isn’t that the nature of intellectual inquiry, to discover what questions to ask? Who is Oleanna, for instance? What is the nature of justice? What are our responsibilities to the young? And are the latter two merely academic questions?

In a drama as intense and dangerous as a chess game but with far weightier consequences, Paul Daily as Professor John and Aubrey Seader as the undergrad Carol both give riveting performances.

“Oleanna” begins when a very confused Carol asks for a meeting with her professor. Although she takes copious notes, and has even bought John’s text, she doesn’t understand the concepts which he teaches in class. Daily pounces around his office, restlessly lecturing Carol and sharing anecdotes about how he once believed himself to be stupid also. But he makes several serious errors; he mocks the college that pays his salary and which Carol has worked so hard to pay for and experience. And as he is describing his life of privilege — the security of tenure, a new house, and private school for his child — Carol realizes that one failing grade will bar her from entering such a life.

The Professor spouts — no, pontificates — absurd theories, then expounds some personal psychobabble, before relating an off-color story.

As in all of Mamet’s plays, conversations between the characters fail. They speak to each other from different universes and mostly do not connect, or really listen and understand each other. Words, syllables, attenuated phrases, sentences, whole paragraphs fly hither and yon, but mostly sail past each other. But Carol absorbs some of them and learns from the Professor, but not what he expected her to learn.

In the first act, the power shift is definitely in the Professor’s favor. Carol sits in a chair, trying to express herself, but mostly listening to the Professor’s rants. Repeatedly, they are interrupted by calls from his wife or a Realtor. These conversations are all one-sided, and Daily punches out each word and interrupted phrase, but sometimes too fast for us to really believe that there another speaker is on the line.

When Carol disagrees with John, she stands up and raises her voice, but he quickly quells her questions, and orders her to sit again. He then struts again, once even telling a story about how sex differs for rich people and poor people. The scene ends with some physical contact, but not of a sexual kind. Or is it?

Jeffery Allen directed this fast-paced, emotionally intense roller coaster. He succeeds at presenting two characters undergoing radical changes. Daily and Seader spar verbally, raising their voices, at times screaming at each other. Both actors give powerful performances. Their timing is excellent.

Seader also manages to portray listening and thinking as very active experiences. Both actors deliver several monologues that are thrilling to watch.

And that question about what does the title “Oleanna” mean: Mamet borrowed it from a 19th century folksong about an escapist Utopia.

This play is certainly no Utopia, but instead a scintillating look at power roles and human miscommunication. It’s an intelligent, involving play.

“Oleanna” ended its run on Saturday.

About Ivy Tech Community College

Ivy Tech Community College is Indiana's largest public postsecondary institution and the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college system, accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Ivy Tech has campuses throughout Indiana and also serves thousands of students annually online. It serves as the state's engine of workforce development, offering associate degrees, long- and short-term certificate programs, industry certifications, and training that aligns with the needs of the community. The College provides a seamless transfer to other colleges and universities in Indiana, as well as out of state, for a more affordable route to a bachelor's degree.