Lust for power, sharp dialogue fuel `Oleanna'

Relationships: An Annapolis production of the David Mamet play enters its final weekend.

Review

February 27, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Lord Acton warned about the corrupting nature of power, he probably had the political realm in mind.

But the lust for power can corrupt personal relationships as well. If you don't believe me, go have a look at Oleanna, the David Mamet play about to enter its third and final weekend of production by the Bay Theatre Company of Annapolis.

John is a college professor, an overintellectualized tenure-or-bust windbag enchanted by the force he feels emanating from his many pontifications. A critic of universities such as the one on the verge of granting him a lifetime appointment, he believes that true learning liberates one from all institutional strangleholds, though, hypocritically, he can't resist perching himself at the apex of the power triangle when undergraduates come to call.

The student in this two-character play is Carol, a forlorn young woman overwhelmed by her inability to assimilate the professor's nonstop pronouncements. "I did what you told me," she repeats in her mantra of helplessness. "I read your book. What is everybody talking about? What does it mean?"

Alas for the professor, the balance of power shifts in Act II, when Carol finds the moxie not only to upbraid her teacher for his classist, elitist and sexist beliefs, but also to bring him up on harassment charges that could ruin him. She's empowered all right, but by the smug feelings of victimization she has latched onto via her membership in an unnamed group. "I have my notes," she asserts as the tables turn. "What I say is right."

Neither character is evil or stupid, and the sad thing is that each could teach the other a thing or two.

Honest acknowledgement of Carol's pain might help bring the head-in-the-clouds professor back down to earth where his listening skills could be put to better use.

And not everything Mamet's academic says is blather, either. All of us, Carol included, might want to question whether the notion of higher education for all is an unassailable good or merely another bit of modern egalitarianism run amok.

But reasoned discourse is impossible in a power relationship where self-absorption is allowed to masquerade as self-evident truth. An ambient setting seething with botched real estate deals, intrusive phone calls and unctuous shows of support that sound suspiciously like interruptions doesn't help the empathy flow, either.

Mamet has become famous as a master of clipped, fragmented dialogue that gives all this emotional disconnection such a ring of authority.

It also makes for a tough play to bring off, since the actors must, in effect, memorize entire conversations rather than lines that flow inexorably out of other lines. A tall order indeed.

Thankfully, Bay Theatre - in only its second offering - has latched onto two of the area's best.

Lauren Kirby, who has given us accomplished Shakespeare with the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, introduces Carol as a sad-sack par excellence but finds plenty of sanctimonious swagger when on the attack in Act II.

Jim Gallagher, who entered the production late and learned his role in just 17 days, also is remarkable. Evoking a vulnerability as telling as his character's arrogance (and with expert assistance from his co-star), he accomplishes the nearly impossible task of dredging up a bit of sympathy for the professor who probably doesn't deserve to have his career turned to ashes despite his obnoxious demeanor in Act I.

The Powerhouse Building at Loews Hotel in Annapolis proves a hospitable setting for the play, which thrives under the able direction of Lucinda Merry-Browne, artistic director of the Bay Theatre Company. With this offering, the fledgling ensemble makes a prodigious contribution to the local theater scene.

The final three performances of Oleanna will be performed in the Powerhouse Building at Loews Hotel, 126 West St. in Annapolis, at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. For information and reservations, call 410-263-6671.

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