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Sunday, 17 November 2013 20:55

‘Oleanna’ Travels Down the Slippery Slope

Written by Tina Farmer

The Details

David Mamet's "Oleanna" is an intense examination of the power of words and intention. To its credit, Encore! Theater Group spares no punches in this well-acted production, presented in an intimate space that only heightens the dramatic tension developed in the script. The result is an affecting and lingering performance that, as promised, offers the audience no easy answers.

The two-person script highlights the considerable talents of Ben Ritchie, as John, a professor on the tenure track, and Tasha Zebrowski, as Carol, John's student. The entire play is set in the professor's campus office, an office that seems to become increasingly small and suffocating as the tension builds to monstrous proportions.

At the play's open, Carol has come to discuss John's class, and her struggles in the class in particular. Carol wants, in fact she says she needs, a good grade in the class even as she freely admits she is unable to grasp the concepts taught. John is distracted with personal issues, and frequent phone calls interrupt his conversation with Carol. He initially attempts to dismiss Carol and her concerns, but she persists and soon draws him into an important discussion that covers both academic and personal subjects.

As the show progresses, this discussion looms large and both the characters' and the audience's perceptions of the conversation come into question. What may have at first appeared as honest, if unexpected, answers to genuine questions or caring responses to a student's uncertainty and frailty are suddenly suspect. Did John berate or sexually harass Carol as he is accused? Did Carol twist a teacher's offer of assistance to further her, and her mysterious group's, academic and / or political agenda?

Ritchie and Zebrowski turn in careful, thoughtful performances that are steeped in subtle and unforced motivation. Each shows considerable restraint in their interpretation of the lines, a credit to the actors and director Phillip Allen Coan. The only moment that did not ring true to me, the resolution of the closing scene, was a result of the script itself and not a reflection of the quality of the performances.

Ritchie's John has more lines, but less character, to work with, yet he manages to create a man who is not simply pompous and self-absorbed. There are moments when Ritchie conveys a change of heart or new thought with the slightest flicker of expression, adding nuance and eliciting sympathy for the professor caught in an untenable struggle. Ritchie navigates John's emotional journey and seeming love of his own voice with a deft touch, keeping the character interesting and complex rather than settling for the ease of one-note heavy-handedness.

Zebrowski seamlessly transforms from mousey to assertive, her energy building as her character finds not just a voice, but also a cause to embrace. She moves from timid uncertainty to aggressive pursuit with a willful cruelty, as if to inflict on her professor every indignity she, or any other woman, has ever perceived. Her accusations seem rooted not in the actual experience, but as a trained response to an extreme interpretation of an experience, and Zebrowski conveys this with frightening conviction.

It is a difficult transition for an actress to make and still create a believable character and Zebrowski handles the challenge quite well.

In his script, Mamet has intentionally blurred the lines between perception and reality; and while he suggests a series of potential interpretations and outcomes, he takes pains to avoid a clear and easy resolution. I felt conflicted, as an audience member, by the closing scene in the play. While powerful, and filled with righteous anger from both characters, it also felt false -- a little too convenient and easy.

The space selected for the production, a room at the Regional Arts Commission, places the audience almost uncomfortably close to the production, forcing them to consider the questions and situations. I do not know if the space was purposefully selected for the production or secured simply because it was available, but the effect was fairly spectacular. I felt enveloped by the situation, struck by the immediacy and proximity of the action and compelled to consider my own reaction to the scenes as they unfolded.

I don't think Mamet could have scripted such an overwhelming and immersive experience, and the company is to be credited for embracing the location and using it to enhance the theatricality of their production. "Oleanna" is a thought-provoking drama that may leave you questioning your assumptions and most certainly lives up to its ascertion that, no matter which side you choose, you are wrong.

Encore! Theater Group's production of "Oleanna" runs through November 23, 2013 at the Regional Arts Commission space. For more information, visit or call 314-329-8998.

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