Ronald Reagan’s most famous quip was that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
But for women, especially young women, perhaps equally hair-raising are the nine spoken by the male professor, John, early in David Mamet’s Oleanna: “I have no desire other than to help you.”
“Mansplaining” has only recently been added to the lexicon, but playwright David Mamet wrote a pitch-perfect example of the odious practice in the first act of his notorious 1992 drama.
In director Alisa Palmer’s new production for Theatre New Brunswick, actor Shawn Wright, playing John, nails the condescending, touchy-feely tone and slightly slouchy, ersatz sympathetic body language of a supposedly progressive professor in love with the sound of his own voice.
John is meeting in his office with Carol (Natalie Roy), a student struggling in his class on educational theory. He puts on a performance of a teacher who puts students first, even as telephone interruptions reveal that the things he truly cares about are his impending tenure and the house he is about to purchase. Circling Carol like a lazy shark, he fancies himself an anti-establishment rebel, but he’s really bourgeois down to his bones.
As oblivious and hypocritical as John is, Wright does communicate that he has good intentions – and even the most egregious mansplainer does not deserve the path to hell Mamet paves for him in the second half of his play.
Carol returns to his office no longer a damsel in distress, but a politicized complainant to John’s tenure committee armed with a long list of comments taken out of context and friendly physical gestures twisted into acts of sexual violence.
Theatre New Brunswick is selling the show with a tag line – “Whose side are you on … think again” – that suggests Mamet’s play is more balanced than it is. In truth, Oleanna is more sweaty-palmed than even-handed in its dystopian vision of an emerging politically correct police state.
Palmer, a New Brunswick native who is a Shaw Festival regular and perennial Siminovitch Prize bridesmaid, doesn’t force Mamet’s play to be anything it is not, delivering a fairly straightforward production of the script that makes an audience sympathize almost entirely with John. Lighting designer Leigh Ann Vardy adds the only element of stylization, a harsh box of light that shrinks in on John’s office. While the ending of Oleanna is effectively chilling, that feeling of a trap closing in could have been more palpable during the course of the play.
As Carol, Roy carves a clear path from defensive, confused student to gender terrorist – but she struggles, as most actresses to do, make this cipher seem entirely human. This is Mamet’s “fault” – and I put that in quotes, because I enjoy the play as a provocation that is not entirely humanist. It’s satire, and shockingly effective because it doesn’t overly signal itself as such.
TNB’s production gains an edge due to its presentation at an actual liberal arts college – St. Thomas University, where the student body is about 70-per-cent female. Mamet’s play is very early 1990s in its fear of power transferring from men to women – but, then again, it could very well have been retitled The End of Men, after the bestseller that mines similar anxieties today.
With director and cast all originally from the province, Oleanna is a proud season premiere for Theatre New Brunswick, which teetered on the brink about six years ago, but was saved through restructuring and widespread community rallying.
Artistic producer Caleb Marshall began presenting part of TNB’s season at STU’s theatre last season. He’s had another clever idea other regionals with an overreliance on American classics might consider adopting – Canadian openings acts.
Oleanna was prefaced by 82-year-old actress (and former senator) Viola Léger presenting a monologue of Antonine Maillet’s Acadian washerwoman LaSagouine. What a leap from that wise old lady to the angry young woman of Oleanna – and how extraordinary that Léger is still performing the part perfectly after 41 years.