On the surface, David Mamet’s 1992 drama “Oleanna” is a play about social politics, with themes ranging from political correctness and women’s rights to class privilege and “the white man’s burden.”
But at its core, “Oleanna” is really about how we talk about politics in America, favoring a style of discourse that leans heavily on bluster and bombast and ignores thoughtful discussion between disagreeing parties.
In the Mighty Lincoln Company’s production of “Oleanna” (through Sept. 23 at the Valiant Theatre and Lounge), the war of words between a college professor and a female student escalates into a dramatic battle between the sexes, though the manipulative and egomaniacal combatants are likely to leave audiences rooting for mutually assured destruction.
Directed by John Neisler, “Oleanna” unfolds in three brisk acts.
The opening act introduces John (James Yeargain), a member of the academic elite teaching a course on American education, which he describes derisively as “virtual warehousing of the young” and “something other than useful.”
But for Carol, (Ashton Akridge), who has come to his office to discuss her failing grade, college is a hard-sought opportunity, and she’s frustrated by John’s bloviating.
Yeargain turns in a solid performance as John, treating a dispirited Carol with oblivious condescension (despite seemingly good intentions) and successfully establishing a gross imbalance of power.
As Carol, Akridge takes what the script gives her in the first act, effectively grounding her performance in the frustration of being talked over or outright ignored, as John fields one-sided phone calls regarding the purchase a new house, a perk afforded by his recent tenure announcement.
The real trick of the play comes in the second act.
When the lights come up, the tables have turned dramatically. Since their first meeting, Carol has filed accusations of inappropriate behavior against John over what she perceives as sexual harassment. He’s panicking over the danger of losing his job while she revels in having gained the upper hand — or at least equal footing.
This act ramps up the drama and reveals the play for what it is — not a search for understanding between disparate points of view but an exercise in emotional cruelty between two characters who both insist on being right, regardless of the consequences.
The pace of the play benefits from Neisler’s swift direction, which is active and physical throughout, as well as Mamet’s rapid-fire dialogue. The performers sometimes get bogged down by the playwright’s signature “Mamet speak” — a writing style relying on half-uttered thoughts, unfinished sentences, and abrupt starts and stops — leading to some clunky exchanges with more volume than emotional content. The uncomfortable shouting matches underscore the single-mindedness of Mamet’s mostly one-dimensional characters. (And it shouldn’t escape notice that Carol is written with more than a whiff of misogyny, emerging as an angry feminist archetype bent on vengeance over questionable accusations.)
The set design by Wendy Neisler delivers a fitting scene for this cage match. John’s office is stuffed with mismatched furniture and overflowing bookshelves, leaving the characters with little room to maneuver, and the professor’s heavy desk is positioned near the office door, preventing any easy escapes.
The play’s conclusion in the third act is messy by design, as the playwright refuses to let either character off the hook, reeling the audience into their ugly resolution.
If there’s a big lesson at the end of “Oleanna,” it’s not about truly examining the hot-button issues that rise to the surface but, instead, examining how people react when forced to confront those issues under stress. To that end, the characters of “Oleanna” — with all their anger and spite — deliver a master class in what not to do.
WHEN: Sept. 7-23
WHERE: The Valiant Theatre and Lounge, 6621 St. Claude Ave.