Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can rip you to pieces if you don't use them carefully.
That might, in fact, be the most palatable lesson to be learned from Oleanna, now onstage as part of Live Theatre Workshop's Etcetera series.
This is not a play for the faint of heart. There's no blood spilled (and there's surprisingly little swearing for a play by David Mamet), but the pain inflicted onstage is visceral, inescapable and likely to leave a mark on its viewers. And all of this suffering is brought to you through the brilliant work of director Sheldon Metz and his two-person powerhouse acting ensemble.
Playwright David Mamet, born in 1947, has had a career spanning theater, film, television and literature; much of his work explores the darker corners of human interaction. His stories are full of complex characters who defy simple labels of "good" or "evil," leaving the unsettling task of passing judgment up to his audience. His 1992 Oleanna does exactly that.
It begins innocently enough (or so it seems). John (Bill Epstein), a blustery, self-important college professor on the verge of earning tenure, is on the phone in his office, juggling the details of purchasing a new home. Carol (Carley Preston), one of his students, sits waiting, silent and uncomfortable, as if hoping to win his attention while trying to become invisible.
The first thing you notice is that Mamet's famously fragmented dialogue is on full display. We ordinary people do not speak in the beautifully crafted, complete sentences usually heard onstage and onscreen, and Mamet deviates from that convention, employing all the rough edges of casual speech: interruptions, tangents, stammering, unfinished thoughts. But instead of sounding more naturalistic, his dialogue can be jarring.
Epstein gets the most air time during the first of the play's three scenes. He riffs his way through the jagged text, punctuating it with tongue clicks and impatient puffs of air. Rarely do any of his sentences make it all the way to the period, but Epstein's performance is always clear and immediate. He rides his character's train of thought through uneven terrain.
Carol has come to John's office to discuss her grade in his class. She has struggled to understand his lectures, and has even bought and read his book on the subject, but her research paper has failed to impress. In between phone calls, John counsels and lectures and consoles, and shares lessons from his own life experience. He's the sort of man who so loves the sound of his own voice that he drowns her out while telling her to speak up, and he decides that, as an act of generosity, he will grant Carol an A if she will agree to return for more private study sessions.
Preston plays Carol as a woman carrying an almost tangible emotional burden. She somehow captures the rich ebb and flow of an ocean of emotional undercurrent in Carol's silences. She seems always to be fighting against tears, a struggle that occasionally bursts out into moments of anger—and surprising eloquence.
Carol's feelings seem to almost overwhelm her entirely during one particularly vulnerable moment, when she's on the verge of confessing a secret she has never shared—a moment shattered by yet another phone call.
In the second scene, John is still full of bluster, and now a shade of indignation, but Carol is no longer quiveringly passive. In fact, Carol has lodged a complaint with the tenure board, accusing John of sexual harassment, and her allegations have given her a level of power in their relationship. As power slips away from John, he mirrors Carol's earlier silences, sitting frozen in horror, at the mercy of his pupil.
But what is the truth? Did John's behavior cross a line? Is Carol overreacting, perhaps because of whatever dark secret haunts her past? The two circle each other like caged predators, each fighting to define the meaning of their previous interaction. Time and again, the debate circles around three measures of truth: words, feelings and actions.
Words seem like they would be John's strength. With a scholar's vocabulary, he can't use a $3 word when a $12 word will do. But Carol, initially shut out by John's language, has a much keener ear for the implication of words. Where John gets carried away in his own eloquence, Carol hears a clear subtext of entrenched sexism and casual abuse of power.
John counters by arguing that his intentions were pure. His perception of the event is framed by how he experienced it emotionally, and he accuses Carol of being without feeling, because she refuses to sympathize. But Carol's experience was filtered by her own emotions, which are no less valid then John's.
What remains, then, is actions, and here, Carol gains the upper hand. For two semesters, she has been documenting John's missteps, in speech and behavior. Stripped of his protective shield of language, and the reassurance of his good intentions, the record of his deeds becomes damning evidence before the tenure committee. The result—watching John's inexorable (though possibly deserved) descent toward self-destruction—is absolutely harrowing.
Metz has done an impressive job of leading his actors through this minefield. Not only do the actors bring meaning to the shattered dialogue; the production maintains a balance between the characters' perspectives. Both are right; both are wrong; and, as the play pushes to its explosive finish, neither character is innocent.
Although this show is not recommended as a first date (unless your idea of romance involves a heated post-show argument), Oleanna is a compelling play with powerful performances. It's likely to linger with you for a long time after it ends.