Salt Spring Community Theatre is offering a brave choice for its fall production, tackling the thorny issue of male-female power relations as expressed in David Mamet’s Oleanna.
Resting on the performance of just two individuals to reflect a huge social concern, Oleanna charts the changing relationship between a male professor and his young female student over three acts. At the beginning of the play, professor John (played by Dave French) has all the security of position, his fortune rising with tenure at his university just about to be signed. He’s not much help when Carol (Metta Rose) arrives at his office begging for help to understand his obscure writings and thoughts on the philosophy of education.
By the third act the power relationship has almost completely reversed, as Carol’s reports on actions John unthinkingly took in acts one and two place him on the verge of losing everything. While John argues things he said and did to Carol were never meant to be sexual in nature, Carol challenges his right to assign the meaning of those actions.
Oleanna premiered in 1992 and was written during the hearings on Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court — which were complicated when his former assistant Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. Similar to the more recent hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, the claim was dismissed as politically motivated invention.
As Oleanna director Damian Inwood states at the beginning of the Community Theatre production, in the wake of the #MeToo movement we may be thinking about these matters differently now than when Hill was testifying. The shift may in turn colour how modern audience members react to the situation depicted on stage, which on paper sounds like a false accusation.
Without the right actors in place this could have been a bad choice for community theatre, but Inwood has made a solid bet on the two stars. His directing talent is also notable. The dialogue-heavy material sounds natural enough that the audience can focus more on the subtext, which is where the true rift in power and perception lives. Movement and blocking in the simple office set likewise creates a dynamic analogue to the interior battles taking place.
Salt Spring Community Theatre offers four more performances of Oleanna beginning with a fundraiser event for SWOVA tonight, Wednesday, Nov. 13. The show runs at 7:30 p.m. nightly though Saturday, Nov. 16.