On June 6, Spare Stage Theatre Company held its opening night for Stephen Drewes’ revival of David Mamet’s “Oleanna” at the quaint EXIT Theatre near Union Square. Although first produced in 1992, the issues of sexual politics in academia and the ever-present power struggle between men and women found in “Oleanna” are equally, if not more, relevant today.
Aaron Murphy plays John, the preoccupied and demeaning professor, with Frannie Morrison as Carol, his frantic and rather helpless student. The two engage in heated dialogue throughout the play, which follows a power struggle between a university professor and his student after she accuses him of sexual assault and places his chances for tenure in jeopardy. UC Berkeley graduate Drewes leads the production as director of Mamet’s tense two-person drama.
Murphy fittingly plays the role of a pedantic and condescending patriarchal figure, while Morrison, at first appearing frantic, blooms only in the later scenes as she finally gains composure. The audience is left wondering who is in the right and who is in the wrong as they negotiate the fine line that defines what they consider to be sexual exploitation and manipulation. The play seems to dare audiences to pick a side.
Carol initially attends her professor’s office hours to ensure she will receive a passing grade in his allegedly confusing class, initially bestowing John a significant degree of the power. Morrison’s performance as a desperate student is rather unconvincing, as she pleads with John that she has done everything possible to succeed in his class yet continues to fail. John’s unsupportive and discouraging advice, though rather unprofessional, can hardly be viewed as sexual harassment. Rather than sympathizing with Carol, John rants, “Education (is only) prolonged and systematic hazing,” accepted as “a matter of right,” all while successfully maintaining his role of the self-involved patriarch by answering the incessant calls of his real estate agent. Although he strays from what we would expect from a professor, John would not typically be considered a sexual aggressor in this case, even in spite of the multiple times he consolingly touches her arm.
Scene II brings a more composed and poised Carol to her professor’s office. This time, she comes to discuss her report of his sexual offenses instead of her failing grade, ultimately leaving her with the upper hand in their exchange. Her evidence of sexual harassment rests almost entirely on conversations twisted and contorted to fit her case, leading the audience to question her accusations. Carol then moves to confront John based on her belief that he relishes the power he enjoys as a professor, a power she bitterly resents in her complaints. Carol seethes that he calls education “hazing” from what she views as his “so-protected, so-elitist seat” while treating her learning difficulties as a joke. Originally, it seems as though her grievances are rooted in her bitterness over his failure to be an effective guide and educator rather than in his sexual offenses.
As the play reaches its final scene, the audience begins to doubt John’s innocence in the alleged sex crimes, causing the audience’s sympathy to shift onto Carol. The final moment of conflict causes audiences to question all of their previous beliefs and judgments of the characters and the power dynamic between John and Carol.
Although somewhat overdramatized at times, the play definitely achieves its goal of avoiding espousing one side of the argument over the other, ensuring the audience leaves the theater feeling that no matter which side they take, they’re wrong.