Everyman goes nobly into battle of the sexes

March 14, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Just as there can be no winners or losers in the war between the sexes, so there are no winners or losers in "Oleanna," David Mamet's play set on that battlefield.

At Everyman Theatre, director Vincent M. Lancisi has staged this provocative play in the round. If he were going for a simplistic approach, Lancisi might have encouraged designer Sean Pringle model the set after a boxing ring.

But Mamet's examination of sexual harassment is anything but simple, and Lancisi doesn't opt for easy answers. Instead, he uses the in-the-round setting to elicit a more visceral audience response than is possible with safe, conventional proscenium staging. And, winning the audience's involvement is especially crucial since "Oleanna" repeatedly asks us to shift loyalties.

Our involvement is heightened by the performances, particularly that of Jacqueline Underwood as Carol, a seemingly naive, even dim, college student who comes to her professor's office to find out why she can't understand his lectures or his textbook.

Although Mamet never tells us exactly what kind of class this is, it seems to be an education class; Carol was attracted to it because it dealt with "responsibility to the young." The nature of that responsibility is a major theme in Mamet's play.

In their first encounter, John, the professor, reacts paternalistically to Carol, at one point telling her that he's talking to her as he would to his son. Timmy Ray James is fully believable as this well-intentioned academic.

But Mamet's agenda causes these characters to switch roles. Mild-mannered, pontificating John becomes violent, and, in true, elliptical Mametese, nearly speechless by the end of the play. And Carol whose charges against the professor begin with harassment and build from there not only gains power, but a prodigious command of rhetoric.

Underwood, who became a member of Actors' Equity, the professional actors union, with this production, displays impressive range as Carol undergoes these changes. Initially so unsure of herself that she cannot meet her professor's gaze, Underwood's Carol comes to achieve a level of self-assuredness that registers in her bearing as well as her language, as she spouts what seem to be the lessons learned in a recently joined radical feminist group.

James, however, does a somewhat less convincing job conveying the professor's transformation. In the fight scenes, choreographed by Lewis Shaw, James' moves seem forced almost in slow motion. Instead of unleashing the professor's repressed anger, the actor seems to be struggling too hard against the character's previously revealed gentle nature.

This slight unevenness hampers the credibility of characters intended to appear, at times, totally in the right, and at others, totally in the wrong. Are Carol's reactions justified? Or has she grossly misinterpreted the professor's intentions and actions? Or the breach between men and women too wide to ever be mended?

Even with a minor imbalance, these questions spring readily to the surface at Everyman. "Oleanna's" ironic title comes from a folk song referring to Utopia. It is a credit to this production that when you leave it, you may feel angry, upset, even confused, but you definitely don't feel you've been to Utopia.


Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2: 30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 24

Tickets: $15

Call: (410) 752-2208

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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