by Jahnesha Huertas
David Mamet’s audience-dividing Oleanna follows Carol (Julia Stiles), an academically struggling student, when she comes to her professor, John (Bill Pullman), in a desperate attempt to raise her grade. Carol doesn’t want to simply protect her GPA, but she wants to actually UNDERSTAND the material in order to understand life as a whole, John agrees to re-teach the entire semester to her during private one-one sessions, but,in the midst of doing so, he challenges all that Carol believes about life, authority and power. He refers to higher education as “prolonged hazing” and tells to Carol that all personal issues, financial struggles and sexual prejudices she has overcome to gain acceptance to the institution have been pointless.
John’s intentions are pure. He is working on receiving tenure at the institution and seems to see a bit of himself in Carol. Though they are of different ages, sexes and economic classes, they each have an idealistic sense of achievement they want to fulfill. John repeatedly has private sessions with Carol and says he wants to help her because he “likes” her. Carol then brings a suite against John for sexual harassment. She recalls everything that the audience has seen, but attaches malicious intentions to John’s words, causing the audience to rethink what actually happened.
The set realistically modeled a professor’s office. There were no set changes since the entire play took place in John’s office, but there were numerous costume changes that I found disturbing. To represent the passing of time, the stage would fade to black after and the window shades of the professor’s office would rise to show the campus outside (either sunny or winter-like to inform the audience of the season) and then close again. The actors would then return in different or altered clothing. Technically, this gave the actors time for a wardrobe change, but in terms of the flow of the story it depleted artistic continuity. For a moment, the audience was taken out of the realm of the plot, and the actors had to work even harder in the next scene to recapture the energy.
The true question of Oleanna is what is power and how does it fit into the idealistic standards we set for our lives? Carol didn’t lie in her accusations, she simply recounted what she felt had happened. Although she did report the truth, I feel she altered the facts to show her professor that, although he has the authority, she has the power. Words and actions are perceived differently and that difference in perception defines our interaction with humanity and what embodies our individual visions of what is “truth”.