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Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’ a script worthy of discussion

When David Mamet’s “Oleanna” opened off-Broadway in 1994, there were reports of fistfights in the lobby about what the play really meant.

This week I reviewed RagTag Entertainment’s production at the Las Vegas Little Theatre Studio (which runs through April 29; lvlt.org), but I didn’t want to give away spoilers about the story. Now, I’m hoping readers will catch the production and then read this column so that I can feel free to discuss what’s at the heart of this complicated script.

We’re introduced to a naive, confused female student who’s failing a course. The professor she meets with is condescending yet soon appears genuinely touched. He agrees to tutor her and assures her she could easily get an A. I sensed, in director Joe Hynes production, that the professor was earnest, that he was trying to help and that he had no intentions of sexual misconduct.

In the second section, the girl, still a bit unsure, is confident enough to confront the professor and accuse him of setting himself above the ordinary man. She’s distraught, and he tries to make her see that he’s nothing special, that he has enormous personal problems. At one point, he touches her on the shoulder to calm her down.

In the third interval, though, the balance of power changes. She’s become part of an organized group accusing the professor of rape. He loses his upcoming tenure, his job and his plans for the future – all at the hands of this “helpless” student. He hurls obscenities at her and then violently punches her repeatedly.

I’ve seen productions of this in which the professor was obviously a lecher and the girl an angel. I’ve also seen the girl played as a monster who wants nothing more than to see her teacher brought down.

But those who see this work merely as a treatise on sexual politics are, I think, missing the richness of the material. It’s a tale about power, illusions and the need to feel justified. When the prestigious professor loses his position, he doesn’t know who he is anymore. And he does what most cornered animals would do: He physically strikes out. It might well be that the girl feels his touching her on the shoulder, his sharing what she considers inappropriate details of her private life is indeed inappropriate. Certainly, today, a professor is not likely to get so personal with a student for the very reasons shown in this play.

If this script were really about sexual harassment, Mamet – a careful writer – would have done a better job of balancing the sides. The two characters become trapped in language as a tool for power, and neither side wins.

I think it’s important to point this out because I’m hoping that those patrons who saw the play strictly in terms of sexual harassment will give it another look. Hynes’ production is worth attending because it gives the audience the rich layers the script deserves.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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