Diego Matamoros and Sarah Wilson in Oleanna. Photo by Bruce Zinger
Reviewed by James Karas
David Mamet’s Oleanna is one of those seemingly simply plays that once seen is never forgotten. Even more so when it is given a superb production as it was from Soulpepper at the Young Centre. It is theatre at its best and, to reuse that hackneyed phrase, “a must-see” production. Diego Matamoros and Sarah Wilson give extraordinary performances in this marvelous play.
The play is a two-hander that takes place in the office of John, a professor of education. A student named Carol (Sarah Wilson) visits him to discuss her marks. While she is in his office, John talks on the phone with his wife and real estate agent about the purchase of a new house. It has been announced but not actually finalized that he will get tenure.
The professor is a very interesting character. He is a bit absent-minded and distracted but a fundamentally decent person who loves his job and has to deal with the usual and perhaps mundane problems such as getting tenure, buying a better house and sending his son to a good private school.
In his teaching and his views, he is iconoclastic, unorthodox perhaps, prone to some flippancy and inversions but nothing to indicate from the impression that he is open-minded. He expresses views like “education is a hazing” and we have placed too much emphasis on high learning That may be so but he is the beneficiary of that system and is attempting to get the final recognition towards security – being granted tenure.
The student who visits him to discuss her marks comes from a different social milieu and her problem is that she cannot understand what the professor is talking about. He attempts to explain what he is doing and expresses all the views and remarks about education in his repertoire. He tries to encourage the student by telling her about his own difficulty with education. How he was considered stupid and how he rose through the ranks despite those adversities. To all appearances he is mixing the personal with the pedagogical in an attempt to reach the student and help her achieve her potential and most importantly teach her to think.
What he and the audience do not realize is that he is being set up.
In an extraordinary and simply riveting reversal, the professor’s words and actions are used on a charge of sexual harassment. The student, who no longer represents herself alone but “a group” perverts what he said and launches a highly convincing case of sexual harassment. The tenure committee buys it and finds that the professor acted improperly.
We realize eventually that the professor has been set up. This is a power struggle that the professor does not have a chance of winning. The play develops over three meetings between the two of them with the purchase of the house by the professor and the signing of the tenure papers moving alongside the development of the professor-student plot.
We are treated to the Mametesque style of choppy dialogue with frequent mid-sentence interruptions and talking-over. The play moves to a riveting climax, methodically and precisely.
Laszlo Marton directs the play with precision and the pacing is utterly faultless. Teresa Przybylski’s set of a skewed office is a perfect reflection of the unequal power of the student and the professor.
Oleanna opened in 1992 and one wonders how many well-meaning professors bolted their office doors and refused to see any students or attempt to be helpful and use such sexually charged phrases like “I like you” to a student.
This is nuanced, finely tuned acting in a complex play where the war for power is splendidly camouflaged as a simple meeting between a naïve professor and a student who just wants some help.
A great night at the theatre.
Oleanna by David Mamet played until March 19, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666.