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Oleanna: A political correctness nightmare played just right

Diego Matamoros and Sarah Wilson in "Oleanna"

4 out of 4 stars

When David Mamet's 1992 play Oleanna was turned into a movie, the tag line on the poster was: "He said it was a lesson. She said it was sexual harassment. Whichever position you take, you're wrong."

In Laszlo Marton's infuriating, spot-on production of the play for the Soulpepper Theatre Company, however, there is absolutely no question about who is right and who is wrong.

When Carol (Sarah Wilson) shows up at his office, upset over a failing grade on a paper, university professor John (Diego Matamoros) makes a generous offer to the overwhelmed young woman: He'll throw the mark out and give her an A for the whole course, if she comes for private tutoring for the rest of the term.

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Played by Matamoros with a hapless charm, John may be slightly condescending and more than a little full of himself, but his good intentions are entirely clear - he's motivated by an idealistic desire to really reach this student and is willing to throw out the rule book to do so.

Wilson's pale and hunched Carol, on the other hand, is obviously emotionally disturbed from the get-go. As she gains a cruel confidence from an unnamed shadowy activist group and files a sexual harassment complaint with John's tenure committee by twisting his words and actions far out of context (his use of the expression "good men and true" is deemed an act of sexism), she becomes less of a human and more of a monster, and Wilson's performance becomes sharper, straighter and increasingly aggressive.

This is how it must be for the play to work and not merely provoke. Oleanna is not, in any way, a fair fight. Coming out shortly after Clarence Thomas's 1991 U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which came to centre on accusations he'd made unwelcome sexual remarks to attorney Anita Hill, the play has been viewed from the start as a story ripped from the headlines. But it's not: It's torn from the nightmares of those concerned that political correctness is an ever-tightening noose around freedom of thought and speech.

Marton's lightly expressionistic production emphasizes the play's tilt and its unreality. It takes place in a literally slanted world - an off-white, leaning rhombus of an office designed by Teresa Przybylski. As Mamet's battle of the sexes becomes less and less balanced, the audience begins to howl in outrage and the action explodes into cathartic violence, this set, the world of the play, topples right over.

Certainly, there is much in Oleanna that rings frighteningly true: An ex-graduate-student friend of mine who came to see it with me told me at intermission of an actual incident he witnessed not so long ago, where most of a class of students walked out and tried to shut it down because the professor's reading list wasn't "postcolonial" enough; he didn't know yet that Carol was going to come on in the final scene with her own reading-list demands for John's class.

But performed in the stylized naturalism of, say, Glengarry Glen Ross, or worse as some sort of Inherit the Wind of sexual politics, Oleanna would be nothing more than a polemic, and an offensive one at that given Carol's false accusations eventually extend to rape.

Carol is not a real character. She's a worst-case scenario, a straw man - pardon me, straw woman. She is that mythical creature, the feminazi, particularly when she barks at John while thrusting a list of books she wants to ban into the air with all the fervour of a preacher waving a Bible at a revival. (Wilson's performance is quite the scary transformation - and, to be honest, a bit of a surprise. I walked in thinking the cast was as unbalanced as the play, but the younger actress stands up to the always impressive Matamoros.)

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What we have now that we didn't when Oleanna premiered is the benefit of two more decades of Mamet. Oleanna now appears as a bridge between Mamet's more realistic plays and his later, broad satires and farces such as Romance and November.

Marton's production gets it. Oleanna is a dystopian warning, a kind of 1984 or Brave New World of political correctness. And like those works, it is exaggerated and not a little paranoid (and maybe a little dated). It's a great one for post-show debate.


  • Written by David Mamet
  • Directed by Lazslo Marton
  • Starring Diego Matamoros and Sarah Wilson
  • At the Young Centre in Toronto

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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