Dating from those wacky pubic-hair-on-the-Coke-can, confirmation-hearing days when "sexual harassment" and "Supreme Court" went together like "gross miscarriage of democracy" and "Supreme Court" do now, David Mamet's Oleanna is, superficially, an issue-driven play: here is a man in a position of power, here is a woman without same, and here is how they tear each other's lives to shreds after a sexual harassment charge. But don't read it as a cudgel-subtle backlash against politically correct faux fascism. As this OCC production shows, Oleanna is grounded in more personal terms. It's a particularly poisonous study in power and privilege in which no one emerges unhurt.
The premise is simple: a man (who happens to be a college professor) meets a woman (who happens to be his student). The man says some things to the woman, and the woman files a complaint with the tenure committee.
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Jessica Hutchinson (as student Carol) and Martin Winslow (as professor John) give admirable performances in this intensely character-driven production. Winslow gets double plaudits because he also directs.
This admittedly talky play hinges on much more than just dialogue, but Hutchinson and Winslow find great depth to their roles, preventing the play from sinking into a morass of words. It's difficult to choose sides as each character seems to be both victim and perpetrator. During a private meeting in John's office, when Carol is about to tearfully disclose something she's never told anyone before, Winslow makes sure you can feel John's unhealthy excitement. Yet Hutchinson's Carol isn't just a young, naive student driven to anger by the reigning patriarchy. She brings an almost predatory intensity to Carol, a feeling that grows as she begins to wield the kind of power that John takes for granted.
Yet, neither John nor Carol learns anything from the other; roles may reverse and power may sluice from one character to the other, but there's never any equilibrium or equality. Winslow and Hutchinson stoke this tension, keeping their characters electric with uneasy energy. By Oleanna's end, the purportedly noble intentions of both have been torpedoed by base and selfish motivations. This isn't a play about sex or sexual harassment. It's a play about power and, ultimately, an uncomfortable underscoring of Acton's famous dictum: power corrupts.
OLEANNA AT OCC DRAMA LAB, 2701 FAIRVIEW RD., COSTA MESA, (714) 432-5640. SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 & 7 P.M. $5; $6 AT DOOR.