Though a university professor and a struggling female student make up the entire cast of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” it only takes two to create engrossing drama in this evocative play. Tufts’ Pen, Paint & Pretzels (3Ps) on Monday will present the haunting interaction between John (senior Gideon Jacobs) and Carol (senior Lily Zahn) and its devastating aftermath.
“The major themes [in this play] are … gender issues, socioeconomic hierarchies and systems of power and privilege in the academic context … a lot with academic freedom and freedom of speech and who’s given a voice,” Director Charlie Laubacher, a junior, said.
“Oleanna” opens with a discussion between John and Carol about the latter’s poor performance in the classroom. Carol’s frustration with the course material is palpable – unable to grasp the concepts of the course, she laments to her professor, “I walk around, from morning ’til night, with this one thought in my head: I’m stupid!”
Though John is distracted by frantic phone calls from his wife about a meeting with the realtor of a house they are purchasing, he becomes determined to help Carol understand the course material. His insistency confuses Carol, and it seems to confuse him, too. When she asks him why he’s so set on helping her, the only reason he provides is, “Because I like you.”
Their conversation spirals into a criticism of the hypocritical nature of the academic world. Though John is a tenured professor who specializes in educational theory, he readily acknowledges the disconnect between abstract academia and its application, citing this disengagement as the reason why Carol is so lost and furious.
“John sort of represents the academic … and Carol represents the person caught in the reality of the things they’re talking about,” Laubacher said. “Their conflict arises in some ways from the lack of real understanding of the situation he’s supposed to be writing about.”
In his efforts to help Carol understand the material, John explains, “I don’t know how else [to help you] except to be personal.”
His reliance on intimate connection complicates the plot significantly when, in the second act, events transpire that Carol perceives to be sexually inappropriate between the student and teacher.
“Basically, [‘Oleanna’] comes down to the ideas of intention and perception,” Laubacher said. The severe dichotomy between John’s alleged intention and Carol’s perception of the situation have dire repercussions: In the third act, Carol files a lawsuit against her professor for sexual assault.
Theatergoers expecting a simple resolution to this intense clash between the two characters will be disappointed: In the end, neither John nor Carol is exalted or condemned, and the issue of culpability falls to the viewer’s discretion.
“[John and Carol] are pretty villainous in each other’s lives, but they’re both kind of guiltless in the grand scheme because that’s just sort of the nature of academia,” Jacobs said.
“The same incident can be either completely innocent or completely [the opposite],” Zahn said with regard to the audience’s interpretation of John and Carol’s open?ended conflict. “Two people experience the same situation, and then, depending on whose side you’re sitting on or who you’re watching or connecting to, it can be very different.”
By offering strong and vivid portrayals of their characters’ personalities, Zahn and Jacobs bring a fiery chemistry to the stage. A riveting tension exists between the pair, even in the moments when they agree with and begin to understand each other. The two actors adeptly characterize the struggle to form a bridge of comprehension between two people completely at odds, as well as the staggering ramifications of their eventual failure to forge this connection.
“I think this is an important and relevant piece of theater, as it takes place in a university setting and tackles some prevalent issues,” junior Justin Gleiberman, the producer of “Oleanna,” said in an e?mail to the Daily.
The broad scope of pertinent subjects that this play covers – from academic frustration to drastic misunderstandings – marries remarkable poignancy to make “Oleanna” a truly moving performance.