By Rob Cuevas
The current production of Oleanna by Providence Players of Fairfax, hosted at Italian Café in Falls Church, VA, is the perfect night out for both delicious Italian cuisine and hearty theatre fare that will leave you eager for more of each.
“Woke” is a modern term to denote someone or some system as being aware of social problems, disadvantages, or struggles that reside in oppressed or repressed peoples and taking those issues into consideration in their own lives. Considering that David Mamet, best known for plays and movies including Glengarry Glen Ross, The Postman Always Rings Twice, American Buffalo, About Last Night, and Wag the Dog, wrote Oleanna back in 1992, one could say that both the author and this play are woke as…can be.
Director Julie Janson does a fabulous job leading Oleanna’s audience to wrestle with the paradigms, intentions, and motivations of John, a college professor, played by Christopher Crockett, and Carol, John’s student, played by Amanda Ranowsky. Janson’s skills here are proof that being director of the 2016 Ruby Griffith Award-winning play, Amadeus, was not a matter of mere luck but a result of years of theatre experience. Janson leads her two-person cast through three powerful, tough acts that build on each other to a memorable and powerful climactic ending.
For those not familiar with the play, Act 1 opens with Carol, a struggling student, seeking her teacher’s help to explain what he seemingly cannot make clear during his lectures. A self-absorbed professor reeking of entitlement, John is callous to Carol’s needs and keeps her waiting at his desk endlessly while he works a real estate deal to buy a house for himself and his family. All three acts, in fact, are set in John’s small office and in this first act we see John wield his institutional power over his student as he callously ignores her suffering in the pursuit of his own status symbol.
You see, the committee has announced that John has been selected for tenure, something John longs for to justify the life he has chosen. It is life choices that Mamet explores in this piece and puts on full display through John either choosing to either fight to land a house over the phone or ignore the phone and actually communicate with a pleading human being sitting in front of him.
Mamet wants us to explore the value of a human being and look at how modern society ranks people according to their relative utility, cognitive skill and/or ability to negotiate the labyrinth of social institutions and how those very societal judgments affect a person’s own self-worth. Mamet is saying that we sometimes lose our humanity in trying to receive positive value judgments from society. As a matter of survival from society’s harshness, people like John often become cynical of society writ large and no longer honor the people or institutions that constitute it, which leads to damaging others and themselves.
It is that disrespect of boundaries that Crockett fleshes out so well and easily in his portrayal of John as he flexes his entitled power over Carol and expects or demands his reward of tenure and the related status symbols. Crockett is fast, verbally and physically, to reflect John’s devil-may-care attitude, and looks and sounds every bit the part of the condescending, self-absorbed academic. When confronted with the effects of his actions in Acts 2 and 3, Crockett’s John exudes self-pity and viciousness at a world done him wrong, not realizing he has done this to himself.
It is Carol, though, subtly played by Amanda Ranowsky, who brings light and truth to the play and a strong counterpoint to everything that Crockett brings. Where Crockett’s John is loud, obnoxious, and narcissistic, Ranowsky is patient, seeks to understand, and is unwilling to bend from the truth. Ranowsky is best when she channels Carol’s anguished confusion and confident, harsh truth-telling. This ying-yang characterization and portrayal by these two actors is mesmerizing, engrossing and a true joy to watch.
Questions of intent, motivation, interpretation, and misinterpretation of word and deed are expertly delivered to the audience to process and analyze how we communicate, and sometimes miscommunicate or misinterpret, in all forms. The audience is left to mull what drives people in modern social systems. The opportunity to experience and explore these issues is easily worth the price of admission alone.
The simple set design may be a result of the venue but never feels inadequate. At times, the business of an excellent eatery comes through the walls during the performance, but it only serves as an example of the high drama that goes on just past walls and boundaries on the other side, if we only knew. The lighting is sufficient and unobtrusive, never feeling excessive.
Visceral reactions may result in this theatre piece moving you out of your comfort zone. The audience is treated to close proximity to the action on stage and this serves to great effect during critical points in the performance. The production does include some physical fight choreography and audiences should be prepared.
Apropos that this reviewer was able to catch the performance on International Women’s Day, Oleanna is topical to the current #MeToo social movement and the discussion of sexual harassment, patriarchal entitlement, and hostility in the workplace. Anyone with any interest in these issues should attend any of the remaining performances. Kudos to the cast and crew and production company for a timely piece excellently delivered in a non-traditional setting that brings theatre out of the box.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Oleanna plays March 7-9 & 14-16 at Providence Players of Fairfax performing at Italian Café – 7161 Lee Highway, Falls Church, VA. Purchase tickets at the door, or go online. Please contact the venue directly for any dining inquiries.
Lighting Design by Chip Gertzog & Jimmy Gertzog; Fight Choreography by Michael Donahue; Roxanne Waite, Stage Manager.