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STAGE | THEATER REVIEW

Outlet for His Anger

Taut staging and powerful performances make David Mamet's 'Oleanna' in Fullerton a must-see.

June 26, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FULLERTON — Most people forget that the term "politically correct" was coined by Adolf Hitler's propagandist Joseph Goebbels as the basis of a single-minded Nazi philosophy. But playwright David Mamet sees a similarity in today's version of political correctness--particularly in our acceptance of being told what to think--and he exposes that danger in his tense, absorbing one-act drama "Oleanna."

Audiences of the production at the Vanguard Theatre quickly discover that the play concerns sexual harassment, but Mamet pulls the rug out from under the traditional perception that assumes a female victim. His story centers on John, a college professor who is trying to help Carol, a female student, salvage her bleak understanding of his course. He is sincere and truly interested in her attempts at enlightenment. But she is burdened with frayed nerves, an overpowering fear of logic, and she is obviously intellectually challenged.

How does she handle the situation to save her grade? She's a woman of the '90s. She files a complaint to the college tenure committee charging sexual harassment. She hires a lawyer and charges rape, though the pair has never even had sex. She calls in her friends, who say they won't allow the professor's allegedly racist, sexist, elitist attitudes to destroy the integrity of the school. She says she will have his book banned. She demands to pass his course.

Mamet's point is that it is actually John who is being sexually harassed by Carol. In the final scene, during a phone conversation between John and his wife, Carol orders with vivid Nazi-like emphasis, "Don't call your wife 'dear.' " John, and Mamet, are at the end of their patience, and the violent denouement for the moment seems inevitable, especially given Mamet's self-proclaimed misogyny.

Director Tom Amen couldn't have helped Mamet make his point with more understanding and empathy for both characters, and their incompatible points of view. His staging is taut and forthright, and he knows the explicit rhythms in Mamet's writing that give most of his plays their sense of immediacy and truth. Amen appropriately treats the play like a piece of music and conducts it with passion and punch.

Both actors are dynamite.

As John, David Leeper is powerful, understanding his character's adherence to the logic of the purposes of education, his dedication to teaching, and his gentle aim to help Carol. Wendy Abas, in the beginning, gives Carol a desperate feeling of the student's fear and anger; her seamless transition from despondent frustration to vicious aggression and blind power is frightening.

This play is Mamet at his angriest, and the integrity of this staging of his startling drama makes it a must-see.

BE THERE

"Oleanna," Vanguard Theatre, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 19. $13-$15. (714) 526-8007. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

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