The Vortex Theatre: “OLEANNA” IS A DIFFICULT PLAY DONE TO PERFECTION

Oleanna by David Mamet; Directed by Marty Epstein

Through September 9; Tickets: vortexabq.org, 505.247.8600

Power corrupts. Power plays are fascinating. A play about shifting power is riveting. Make one player female, the other male, and we pull our punches by calling it a gender play. Isn’t that thought-provoking?

John (Bob Jesser) is a college professor up for tenure. When we meet him, he’s in his office, on the (old-fashioned, desk) phone, dealing with his wife’s anxieties about a new house they are going to buy with his upcoming raise. The phone calls from her and their attorney ratchet the tension throughout the three scenes of the play.

Carol (Zoey Reese) is a college student who has scheduled an office appointment with John. She lurks in the doorway, moves into the room, stands awkwardly waiting for the call to be over. The professor has already marginalized her concerns by not showing her the respect of hanging up. When they do talk, he interrupts her until she raises her voice and tells him, “I’m speaking.” He apologizes.

Back and forth, the conversation is almost never about Carol’s concerns. She tries to express her confusion about the assignments and the course itself; he makes it all about him by drawing parallels with his own life. We’re alike, he tells her. This is not helpful to Carol, who remains confused yet tries to clarify what he is saying by taking notes. As he stifles her words by holding forth on his beliefs about higher education, she becomes more and more agitated and begins to weep. He grasps her arms and tries to calm her. As she is about to blurt out “something I’ve never told anyone,” the phone rings. Of course, he answers it.

Carol’s notes figure largely in the second scene, when John finds out that she has filed a complaint against him with the tenure committee. She has accused him of sexual harassment and other forms of abuse. What she says is strictly true but, having witnessed the scene, we the audience might be confused. Were his intentions really sexual, when he told her she should visit him again in his office to resolve this matter, when he told her that her final grade would be high, when he grabbed her arms?

Does it matter what his intentions were?

It is down to the actors and the director to make choices in this play that do not answer our questions. Director Marty Epstein and Set Designer Linda Wilson have placed the professor’s office inside a boxing ring, and the sound designer has obliged with the opening gong and the double bell signaling the end of a round. As in almost any fight, the outcome of this play seems up for grabs. 

Jesser is a natural as John—white, tall, secure in his privileges, and absolutely certain that he is entitled to the tenure, the new house, the upper hand. His power over his student is so ingrained in the culture he has embraced (while he derides it) that there seems nothing for him to gain by reconsidering his position. As erudite and intelligent as John is, he is ultimately clueless when Carol takes him to task. Nonetheless, Jesser makes us feel with the character as he watches it all go down the drain. This is a very physical role and a difficult one. Jesser’s perfect performance left me with the impression that, despite other critics’ takes on the play, David Mamet was on John’s side when he wrote it.

Reese as Carol is a hardheaded personality who takes everything literally. She is unlikeable, obtuse and, by the third scene, militant and brainwashed. Does this make her wrong about John? Up to you. Mamet doesn’t make it easy for us to empathize, and neither does Reese. Every rigid fiber of her body and each stance is defensive and angry. She has an understandable attitude but that doesn’t make us care for her. I admired Reese’s refusal to soften the character’s edges and to march into battle as an equal foe. She and Jesser are evenly matched. 

Epstein’s casting here is brilliant. The physicality, especially of scene three when the power has shifted completely, is emphasized by the difference in Jesser’s and Reese’s statures. When John debases both of them by fighting back in the only way he can, it’s genuinely frightening.

Who is the victor of this bout? As referee, I’d hold up Carol’s hand. Would I be smiling? No.

—Stephanie Hainsfurther publishes ABQArts.com.

Show & Ticket Info: 
Performances are Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $22 for general admission, Albuquerque Theatre Guild and SAG/AFTRA members $19 and $15 for students 12 – 18. Opening weekend Saturday night, July 6 is $20. Pay What You Will Sunday, August 19. Talback with directors and cast, Sunday, August 26. For a full schedule, please see www.vortexabq.org. Reservations and ticket purchases can be made online at www.vortexabq.org or by calling 505-247- 8600. 

About the Vortex Theatre: The Vortex is Albuquerque’s oldest continuously-running Black Box Theatre, a pioneering venue for classic, contemporary, and cutting-edge theatre since 1976. This 501(c)3 non-profit community playhouse entertains audiences year-round with some of the city’s finest productions, including our annual Summer Shakespeare Festival. The Vortex is located at 2900 Carlisle Avenue NE.

Photos by Ryan Dobbs.