Imagine witnessing an auto accident. When the police begin questioning bystanders about what exactly happened, each eye witness has his or her own idea about the sequence of things, the reason why things happened the way they did, and who is to blame. The facts may, in fact all be true, but we each perceive the same situations or events in different ways, filtered through our own life experience.
This is basically the message of David Mamet's "Oleanna," the second presentation in the Ghost Light Theatre Festival, a month-long festival of dramatic art, which brings together the diverse work of many Yolo County artists.
This two person, 3-act play is directed by Tom Burmester and features Nino Mancuso as John, a professor and Jill Winternitz as Carol, his student. The play was written shortly after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual harassment trial and was thus a timely view of the escalation of a charge of sexual harassment.
It's a war of words and differing perceptions between a college student and her professor which snowballs into accusations of sexual harassment. At its conclusion, there is no resolution of the truth.
The setting of the play is John's office and in the opening scene, Carol has come to her professor because she is having difficulty understanding his lectures and is in danger of failing the course. Carol is a very timid girl, clutching her notebook to her chest, trying desperately to understand the words of her pedantic professor, who is too distracted to give her more than token notice. He is distracted by thoughts of his impending tenure and constantly interrupted by telephone calls about a house he is in the process of buying.
The dialog is rapid-fire, with the characters constantly interrupting each other. Carol tries desperately to get her message across. John, however, never really hears what she is saying and talks down to her and finally adopts an almost paternalistic, patronizing attitude toward her. Carol perceives this to be sexually provocative.
In Act 2 we see quite a different Carol. No longer shy and timid, she has filed a complaint with the tenure committee, has acquired a group of sympathetic supporters who have bolstered her confidence. No longer is John an intimidating figure. The act is dominated by Carol.
"You're vile, exploitative, sexist and elitist," she says.
John's self-confidence begins to shatter as he realizes that he is in danger of losing what he has worked for his whole life.
By Act 3, John has lost his job. The tables have turned and it is John who is now begging for help from Carol. She lays out some demands which, if met, will result in her retracting her charges of attempted rape.
As the play draws to a close, there have been no conclusions, but perhaps a lot of points for later discussion about sexual harassment, the purpose of education, and individual subjective viewpoints.
Jill Winternitz does a marvelous job of taking Carol through the three scenes, from timid, frightened student, to strong, self-confident woman. Her clothes change into progressively more "powerful" outfits, her long hair gets swept up off of her face and in the third act, she wears bold, bright colors. Costume designer Roxanne Femling obviously understands the need for the visual complement to Carol's growing self-confidence.
Nino Mancuso has mastered Mamet's rapid-fire dialog and handles the role of a distracted professor with aplomb.
Both actors, under Burmester's direction, have woven a tight piece of theatre that is well worth seeing.
Patrons should be advised that there is smoking of non-tobacco cigarettes in one act, and some brief physical violence. The show continues August 23, 24 & 30 at 8pm and August 17 & 31 at 2pm.