John (Tim Perry), the nearly tenured professor who is in the process of buying a house, is talking with his wife on his cell phone. Meanwhile, his student Carol (Darcy Jo Martin) competes for his time.
Director Anne Marie Cummings’ adaption of David Mamet’s 90-minute play begins like Britney Spear’s music video, “Baby One More Time.” Carol is sitting in the classroom with a clock ticking loudly. John’s phone conversations are boring her. This after-class meeting between Carol and John becomes the catalyst for John’s undoing. Carol, who says she doesn’t understand the professor’s book, solicits John for clarification on her grades, claiming she’s too stupid to learn. Accepting the challenge, John offers to give Carol an A if she meets him in his office. This compromising act puts John in a sticky position; in their next confrontation, Carol has filed a sexual harassment complaint about John to the university’s tenure committee.
Cummings modernized Mamet’s work by incorporating cell phones into the production. John is arguing with his wife on his cell phone while Carol is texting on her smart phone. The cell phone’s cherry ringtone becomes a clever device of comic relief, cutting the tension on the stage.
While Cummings chose not to incorporate music into this reading, the steady metronome of a clock creates an uneasy feeling. As each act progresses, the ticking noises grow quicker and more irregular until they finally disappear. The binary beats are reminiscent of those in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “A Tell Tale Heart,” building a sense of foreboding and desperation as the story becomes more and more disturbing. However, just as the audience becomes comfortable with the familiar ticking, it stops. That silence becomes more unsettling than the timer.
Although Cummings’ Oleanna is a dramatic reading, the sparse props — a chair, bench and desk — make it seem like a play. Even the actors’ scripts become extended props, doubling as notes typically found in a classroom setting. From time to time, Martin uses the script as extended pointer fingers, jabbing accusations at Perry. At other times, the script takes on the role of Carol’s complaint. Martin and Perry utilize the scripts so skillfully and creatively that as the show progresses, you forget the actors hold their scripts in front of them.
While John and Carol could easily be hated, Perry and Martin mitigate the characters’ unlikability. John stutters through his conversations with his wife that his inability to finish a sentence makes him seem powerless. Meanwhile, Martin is so convincing as a victim that it’s jarring to see her as John’s prosecutor, destroying his credibility as a professor. While both characters are unsympathetic, Perry and Martin’s portrayal allows us to understand them — even if we don’t like them.
Although it’s been almost 11 years since David Mamet’s three-act play Oleanna first premiered on stage, Mamet’s words are still controversial, challenging thoughts on sexual harassment in the school environment. Cummings, Martin and Perry capture that tension, making it palpable to the voyeurs in the audience.
“Oleanna” was read by The Readers’ Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y., from February 22 to 24. It was directed by Anne Marie Cummings.