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Theatre Review Print

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: Oleanna by David Mamet Is More a Litmus Test for Political Correctness Than It Is a Play

August 2, 2006 - Raleigh, NC:

The current Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy production of Chicago playwright David Mamet’s incendiary two-hander Oleanna, playing Aug. 3-6 and 9-13 in the Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, NC, stars 1995 Tony Award® nominee Alan Campbell (Sunset Boulevard) and talented newcomer Meredith Jones. Campbell delighted Triangle audiences with his performance as a suicidal advertising executive in the swing-dance segment of the national tour of Contact, and Jones is a recent graduate of Wakefield High School in Raleigh, NC. She plans to study musical theater at Penn State University this fall.

With this much talent on stage, plus director Kristen Coury of Gulfshore Playhouse behind the scenes, it is a shame that the script is Oleanna, which is more a litmus test for Political Correctness than it is a play. Oleanna takes its title from the name of a failed utopia: a 19th-century Norwegian agricultural community founded by violinist Ole Bull and his wife, Anna (hence, “Oleanna”). Employing typically stilted Mametian syntax, this play about the decline of academic freedom chronicles the horrifying escalation that transforms a failing female student’s dubious accusation of sexual harassment into a career-killing complaint that costs the accused college professor his chance at tenure, and most likely his job as well.

The situation that Mamet dreams up is to set the plot in motion is a little too contrived for comfort. An emotionally distraught female student named Carol shows up at her philosophy of education professor John’s office at the end of the day, without an appointment, and wants to discuss her failing grade in his course. Even the lowliest junior instructor, which is what I was in the English Department at East Carolina University back in the day, knows not to meet alone with an overwrought student of either sex.

But Mamet’s affable education professor named John (Campbell), who is seriously distracted by ongoing negotiations for a new house that he’s buying to celebrate his promotion to tenured status, not only meets with the student named Carol (Jones), but unintentionally offends her by repeatedly answering the telephone. (After all, he is supposed to be somewhere else, closing the deal on a new house.)

Equally offensive to Carol is John’s iconoclastic commentary about a college education, which he characterizes as ritualized hazing that prolongs the adolescence of students. John also mortifies Carol by telling her a stupid joke about the comparative frequency of intercourse in rich and poor households. Indeed, John’s attempts at humor — to diffuse the innate tension of the situation —are utterly wasted on Carol, who completely lacks a sense of humor, let alone an appreciation for irony.

Carol is highly conscious of the fact that she is from a lower socioeconomic class, and she sees a liberal-arts education as her ticket to the Middle Class. But she’s woefully unprepared for the intellectual rigors of a college education. In fact, she doesn’t understand even common words in the academic lexicon, such as “paradigm” or “transpire.”

When she tells her professor that she has read his book on the philosophy of education, but cannot understand it at all, he generously offers to teach her one-on-one, and let her substitute that series of private tutorials for the classroom work and papers that she’s currently incapable of doing satisfactorily. Of course, Carol completely misinterprets John’s motives, and reacts according to the new code of Political Correctness, which arms every malcontent, malingerer, and neurotic with Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Freedom of thought in general, and academic freedom in particular, is the first victim of the new PC college campus. Despite Mamet’s preposterous plot, John’s downfall is typical of what goes on campuses when Political Correctness runs amok.

In the present HSN production, Alan Campbell does a fine job of exposing the altruism that lies beneath John’s jovial exterior; and bringing this complicated character full to life. John wants to entertain as well as educate, but he has no sense of what is out-of-bounds in the new academic environment, where PC commissars think one bad joke is sufficient reason for ruthlessly destroying careers.

Meredith Jones is likewise good in demonstrating Carol’s breathtaking evolution from sad-sack academic underachiever to supremely confident primary accuser in the academic witch hunt that ensues when she tells the tenure committee that her professor made inappropriate comments and was also guilty of unwanted touching. Make no mistake about it, the accusations of sexual harassment that underlie Carol’s charges are a pathway to power; and the power shift in which Carol turns the tables on John. That chilling reversal is what makes Oleanna such a potent commentary on the goings-on at present-day academic institutions of higher educations.

Director Kristen Coury does a fine job of orchestrating the action, set and lighting designer Curtis Jones recreates John’s office in persuasive detail, and costume designer Caitlen Smith expertly employs fashion upgrades — from funky casual clothes to more businesslike attire — to mirror the power shift that takes place as Carol’s star rises and John’s star falls.

Oleanna is a polarizing play. How you view it may well depend on your personal politics. Although David Mamet uses a preposterous pretext to set this drama’s events in motion, he addresses a thorny subject that needs addressing, and this Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presentation will surely be the subject of many heated “discussions” on the way home form the theater. But be forewarned: Oleanna is definitely not first-date fare — if you’re planning on having a second date.

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents Oleanna Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 2-5 and 9-12, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 6 and 13, at 3 p.m. in the Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $25, with senior and group discounts available. Progress Energy Box Office: 919/831-6060. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/oleanna.htm [inactive 5/07]. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110722/. The David Mamet Review (David Mamet Society): http://mamet.eserver.org/ [inactive 9/06]. The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet: http://cco.cambridge.org/book?id=ccol0521815576_CCOL0521815576.