Donald Trump, Howard Weinstein, Roy Moore, John Conyers, Bill Cosby Al Franken, numerous armed forces and RCMP officers and countless others who dominate the daily news have one thing in common: they are powerful men who have molested women. The practice is hardly new but a large number of cases have come to light and with a slime ball as president the issue is hotly debated.
Flashback to 1991. President George Bush nominates Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court based on two significant qualifications: he is conservative and he is black. Anita Hill’s accusation of sexual harassment against her by Thomas surfaces and the Senate confirms him anyway. Thomas invents or at least uses the currently favourite defence: deny, deny, deny. There are times when evidence meets denial and facts collide with convictions, lies trump the truth.
In 1992. David Mamet wrote Oleanna, an extraordinary play about sexual warfare that has not lost its power 25 years later. Theatre Penumbra gives us a powerful, indeed spellbinding, production with five-star performances by Grace Gordon as Carol and James McGowan as John.
James McGowan in Oleanna. Photo by Neil Silcox
The play is full of twists and traps that lead to unexpected developments as John the professor meets and then is confronted by his student Carol. The poster for the play shows half the face of each actor forming a single person separated by slit. In other words, John and Carol may seem to be completely at odds but are they almost the same? Perhaps.
John is a highly stressed man, almost at the end of his rope. He is buying a house and everything is going wrong in consummating the transaction. He is driven up the wall by his wife and the real estate agent. He has been approved for tenure, a highly sought-after promotion, but the tenure committee has not yet signed the paperwork for his promotion. He is on tenterhooks.
Carol is in his office seeking help to pass an essential course and he seems to go out of his way to help her. She feels that she is stupid and simply does not understand his book or his views. She comes from a different socio-economic group than John.
He appears to make heroic attempts to help her including an offer to teach the entire course to her all over.
The poster for Oleanna
Carol turns everything that he said to her on its head and reports him to the tenure committee for behaviour that she characterizes as vile, manipulative and pornographic. He is not a dedicated teacher who has human problems and is trying to help a student. He is a monster. But Carols is not alone in her attack on him. She represents a group and they were represented by a lawyer at the hearing. The tenure committee believed her evidence and the allegations have become facts.
McGowan as John goes from the assured, brilliant teacher trying desperately to communicate his ideas to a student to a man at bay who slowly realizes his defeat and consequence destruction. McGowan gives us the vocal and physical changes in a man who goes from the triumph of promotion to catastrophe.
Gordon has a similar emotional and physical voyage from the pleading student to an avenging fury. It is a terrifying transformation.
Fulton pays attention to every movement and nuance in the play. Mamet’s play glories in chopped up dialogue where the speakers interrupt each other in mid-word and mid-sentence. It takes discipline and talent to achieve the speed and accuracy demanded by Mamet. Fulton has imposed discipline on delivery of dialogue and certainty in the emotional development that, I repeat, result in spellbinding performances. You leave the theatre emotionally drained and enthralled by the events it described
This is not a play about a sleazebag harassing and molesting an innocent woman. There is no evidence at all that John shows any sexual interest in Carol. Is he simply set up or is his apparently decent conduct and fervent desire to help this troubled student meant to be interpreted as the exercise of male power? I have my own opinion. You go and decide for yourself.
Oleanna by David Mamet, in a production by Theatre Penumbra, continues until December 3, 2017 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen St. East), Toronto, Ontario. http://redsandcastletheatre.com/