Sexual assault could happen at any university, to any student. The Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s latest production, “Oleanna,” which centers on a contentious dispute that spirals into accusations of sexual harassment between a student and her professor, has proven that this theatrical company does not shy away from controversial material. The play, a two-person performance written by David Mamet—who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984—David Mamet and directed by Rachel V. Byrd ’13, is an emotionally charged meditation on the value of higher education and the reversibility of power. While “Oleanna” gains a great deal of charisma from the performances of its two leads, Anna A. Hagen ’15, and Ronald N. Lacey, its weakness lies in a sense of stagnation as at times the production seems at times overly long and slow to develop.
Hagen’s character Carol comes to her professor’s office to protest a failing grade; she has read his book and done all that he asks, but in spite of this she is not able to succeed academically. What begins as a routine academic conversation descends into a testy confrontation about the merits of the higher education system and the pursuit of power.
Winthrop House Library—a stuffy yet dignified room lined with leather-bound books that conjure up a sense of “old Harvard”—is a fitting setting for a play that raises questions about privilege and elitism at college.
What begins as a purely academic conversation between John (Ronald N. Lacey) and his student Carol evolves over the course of the play into a vicious power-play between master and pupil. The identities and motivations of these two characters are revealed and made more complex as the conflict between them escalates to the shattering conclusion. “Oleanna” dramatizes a conflict in which it is difficult to take sides; both characters act in questionable ways in what is revealed to be a raw struggle for control.
Hagen and Lacey shine in the roles of two opponents locked in a thick intellectual debate. Lacey effectively conveys the John’s lofty professorial attitude: the academic empathizes with his struggling student but is nevertheless consumed by more urgent personal and professional concerns. He struts back and forth in front of the audience, imbuing Mamet’s script with a perfectly dislikable superiority. Lacey delivers his lines in a sharp and condescending tone that emphasizes the power dynamics between the student and professor. For example, he belittles all of Carol’s diligent note-taking in his class as a way of questioning her academic chops. “Are you checking your notes?” Lacey scornfully asks, before telling her in a critical manner, “[that] which we wish to retain is retained oftentimes, I think, better with less expenditure of effort.”
Hagen’s performance reflects a high level of artistic maturity. She convincingly conveys her character’s transformation from cowering youth to self-assured and confident plaintiff through an imaginative use of her own physicality. For example, at the beginning she clutches the chair she is sitting on and leans away from Lacey. However, by the end of the play she is standing and confidently addressing, even condemning, her formerly dominant professor.
Shifts in power and authority that take place throughout the performance are subtly highlighted by Byrd’s directorial choices. She visually represents the character’s strengths and weaknesses through their physical position relative to each other, and this staging changes as the power dynamics in the play evolve. For example, at one point in the beginning Lacey towers over his student in a physical manifestation of his domineering attitude. There is even a moment where Lacey tries to forcibly make Hagen sit down. However as the show continues, Hagen stands and claims her own personal agency.
The HRDC’s production of Mamet’s script leaves considerable room for the audience to interpret every line of dialogue. With limited set changes, dramatic pauses between spoken parts, and an already dense and cerebral story-line, the show sometimes descends into frustrating stagnation. For example, there are several scenes where John’s lectures to Carol are followed by moments of silence, or where a similar idea is repeated in an repetitive manner by the cast. In spite of its somewhat slow pace, HRDC’s latest play is a thought-provoking criticism that provides a bitter exposé of the sexism and power dynamics present in some of our most lauded academic institutions.
—Staff writer Ola Topczewska can be reached at email@example.com.