Its easy enough to buy into the Mamet as misogynist theory, considering the writers macho, cigar-chomping image, and the horrors his male characters inflict on women in earlier scripts like the brutally brilliant Edmond, and the juvenile Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Its not a completely baseless charge, but its one that completely (and unjustly) strips Americas most provocative living playwright of his complexity. Oleanna is, at its very core, a simple tragedy in the classic mold, about a person of privilege who, neither fully guilty or completely innocent, is brought low by pride and hypocrisy, and replaced by a system that will not and can not stand.
John, played with sensitivity, and explosive fury by Chris Hart, is happy with his job at an exclusive college, and in line for tenure. To celebrate that professional milestone hes finally buying his castle: a nice house with a big back yard for the boy. His recently published book has proven incomprehensible to Carol, a failing student who hopes to appeal her grade. A deal is struck between student and teacher to forgo their traditional roles, and change the failing grade to an A. For John, this proves to be a deal with the devil that will rob him not only of his of his job but his dreams as well.
In the plays first scene Lyric Peters Carol is an agitated bundle of confusion and impatience, unable to articulate her needs or understand anything that challenges her values. By act three shes the angry, articulate, politically motivated spokesperson for a group, promising to drop all the charges shes leveled against her teacher in exchange for the removal of his and other books from the reading list.
Are their sexual overtones in Johns words and actions? Mamet leaves it vague, and the answer can vary from show to show. In this case, however, the answer is no. Although Johns behavior may stink of paternalism and entitlement, his root intentions are basically noble and in keeping with his views as an educator. One also gets the sense that the only thing Harts autoamorous professor wants to feel up is his own reflection in the mirror.
Mamets attempts to write language as its actually spoken, then present it as a rigidly structured, nearly orchestral exercise can be hard on actors. Caught between the plays hot emotion and the writers cold formalism both Hart and Peter sometimes stumble over one another, and lose their way. But neither ever completely lose sight of their intentions, and their committed performances keep the audience engaged even when the dialogue gets messy.
Mamet loves a good cypher, and in order to understand its intentions its important to understand the meaning of its mysterious title which is neither referenced or explained in the spoken text. Oleanna is the name of a 19th-century european folk song that, like the American hobo anthem Big Rock Candy Mountain, tells of a heavenly paradise where crops self-plant, sweet beer bubbles up from the earth, and luscious barbecued pigs walk the street asking if anyone would would like a slice of ham. In Oleanna, the women do all the work, and, If she doesn't work hard enough/ she takes a stick/ And gives herself a beating. The point here is that there is no paradise where things are easy, and even utopian environments like the ivy-covered walls of academia, or the lost Oleanna, have a dark side. Like its closest dramatic kin, Arthur Millers The Crucible, Oleanna isnt an indictment of anything or anyone but a fair, unflinching jury trial.by Chris Davis