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Anthony F. Ingram, Susie Coodin

Talk about a bad day at the office: American playwright David Mamet’s 1992 two-hander Oleanna is the ultimate horror story.

Presented in the intimate Havana Theatre, director Evan Frayne has staged his three-act production, Oleanna, on a set measuring 12 x 15 feet surrounded on all sides by audience members. No viewer is more than 15 feet from the action. Given this seating arrangement, it’s impossible not to feel as an involved but silent witness to a developing train wreck.

Anthony F. Ingram, Susie Coodin

Well regarded middled-aged Professor John Esmond is up for tenure. From an socially awkward and painful start in life, he finally found his groove when he started to challenge the very meaning of education. Everything is looking so good for him that he is in the midst of closing on his purchase of an expensive dream house.

Seated in his office is a young student, Carol. Carol has gone to the professor’s office looking for help in understanding the course material. Clearly she is frustrated: she’s attended all of his lectures and has read his book but simply can’t comprehend any part of what’s going on.

Dim bulb seems too generous an adjective to describe her. She’s not there to debate but to learn enough to pass the course.

John is tempted to brush her off but decides, whether out of compassion or as a means to revalidate himself as an educator, she is worth his time. When stymied as traditional teaching methods fail, he begins to talk about the personal details of his road to scholastic acceptance. On promise of an A if she agrees to attend one-on-one tutorials, he will guide her through the course material. Carol asks why he’d invest this much effort into her. John states that he likes her.

Anthony F. Ingram, Susie Coodin

Act Two takes place again in John’s office. He’s asked Carol in to informally discuss sexual exploitation charges she, with input from a shadowy support group, has laid with the university. She had taken notes and has recorded quite a damning indictment of their first meeting. He tries to address her written charges in a civilized way pointing out her notes were skewed, in order to present him in the worst possible light. Carol is not interested in or maybe even capable of understanding him and gets up to leave. In frustration, John grabs her to force her to hear him out.

She then screams.

In Act Three, we learn that John has been denied tenure and may be discharged. He’s asked Carol to withdraw her complaints as a reasonable and compassionate act to help him and his family. Not only is she not interested in dropping the charges, she’s now gone to the police and charged him with sexual battery, later informing him that his theories are worthless and hypocritical and that he is much a fool.

Carol agrees to withdraw charges if John purges his course reading list of all books that her support group find offensive. When he sees that is own book is on her list, things move from bad to worse.

Susie Coodin

As Carol, Studio 58 grad Susie Coodin impressed throughout but nowhere more than in the later scenes where her character is given voice. Quite a presence on stage starting in Act Two, her seething stridency hit all the right notes with me. 

As the Professor, Anthony F. Ingram’s portrayal challenged my preconceptions while tugging at my heartstrings. I bought him entirely as a good man caught up in a bad situation. Truth to tell, this review would have been so much easier to write if he’d portrayed a smug, lecherous, arrogant Kevin O’Leary-type know-it-all the script could have allowed for. Although Mr. Abraham stumbled through his lines a few times during opening night, his presentation seemed so right making a great play even better.

Oleanna, reportedly, from day one of its initial run caused and continues to cause much sensation with viewers. A planned-for short debriefing with my seat mate turned into a long debate – it was almost as though we’d witnessed separate events. I am giving the show a big thumbs-up. My seat mate described both plot line and characters as tedious and unbelievable. If you’ve ever experienced a “He said, she said” scenario, you can easily grasp the kind of night you’re in for.  

This presentation is not recommended for those on a blind date nor in search of an evening of laughter. Intelligent folk looking for a challenging night out will obtain, in my opinion, much more than their money’s worth, obviously not a shared belief between my seat mate and myself. 

In this day where loose talk can cost a person their career (TV commentator Tom Flanagan) or Donald Sterling his basketball franchise, Oleanna is a cautionary tale with some very valuable takeaways to impart.  

Bleeding Heart Theatre & Xua Xua Production’s presentation of Oleanna continues to May 17 at the Havana Theatre on The Drive.

Photos by Graham Ockley.

About Our Contributor Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini enjoys Vancouver's vibrant theatre scene and has taken in many productions over the years. He holds a BA in Sociology from Simon Fraser University. Larry is financially involved with the film Eadweard Muybridge, produced by Josh Epstein, directed by Kyle Rideout, and starring Michael Eklund.

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