Salt Spring Community Theatre presents a bold choice for their 2019 fall season in David Mamet’s Oleanna, which opens at Mahon Hall on Nov. 8 under director Damian Inwood.
Oleanna — whose title stems from a 19th-century Norwegian folk song about a lost utopia — premiered in 1992 as the first production of Mamet’s new Back Bay Theater Company in Cambridge, Mass. Mamet was writing it while the Clarence Thomas hearings were underway, after the U.S. Supreme Court nominee was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. Though that was more than 25 years ago now, the themes are probably more relevant than ever.
“I think it’s more topical now. It’s still as controversial as it was then, because we’ve had the #MeToo movement, and we’ve had the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. The text of the play really addresses that from a different viewpoint, I think,” Inwood said.
The play features just two characters on stage: a college professor about to receive tenure and an accompanying large raise, and a female student who has come to his office for help with his class. The professor’s treatment of the student in the first act sets the stage for her retaliation and his downfall afterwards. But audience members may disagree with the student’s interpretation that she’s suffered sexual harassment or worse.
The division between audience members over the outcome reportedly had couples fighting loudly in the theatre and even saw an actor attacked by an audience member when the play had its first run.
Even within the community theatre company, Inwood said, there has been wide divergence of viewpoints on which way things should have gone.
“It’s sort of a different play for community theatre, but I think it’s important that we do some challenging work among our repertoire,” he said.
As well as carrying the entire drama, the challenge for the actors (and their director) is magnified by Mamet’s unique writing for dialogue, which is fast, clever and edgy but also frequently features cut-off and interrupted fragments. Inwood’s casting of Dave French and Metta Rose brings back two of the leads from last year’s powerful staging of The View from the Bridge to take on the challenge.
“It’s stretching them both as actors. I think they’re going to do a great job,” Inwood said. “It’s huge because they’ve got so many lines and huge chunks of text they have to remember.”
The evening will be under two hours, and although this is one play that would seem to beg additional discussion, there will be no talk-back session this time. That’s because Mamet specifically forbids talk-backs under his licensing.
Oleanna opens Friday, Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Shows continue Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m., Nov 10 at 2 p.m. and Nov. 14-16 at 7:30 p.m. SS Community Theatre will once again be staging an additional show as a fundraiser, with an event where ticket sales benefit SWOVA set for Nov. 13.