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PGC Blog
The Walnut Street Theatre presents Mamet's disturbing, repulsive Oleanna

Ralph Malachowski

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posted by Ralph Malachowski on Jan 22, 2019 10:30am | comments


David Mamet’s 1992 play Oleanna is at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 until February 17.


Originally written for Mamet’s own theatre company in 1992, Oleanna was later presented in New York City with a rewritten, violent third act. The ensuing scandal insured its premiere in London in 1993 directed by none other than Harold Pinter. Mamet later rewrote his play for the screen and directed it. It is this 1994 film which used the phrase, “Whatever side you take … you’re wrong.” Oleanna made its Broadway debut in 2009.


The plot appears to be a simple one. A student who appears to be either not very bright, angry, and/or mentally challenged has asked for a conference with the professor whose class she feels she will fail, even though the class has just recently begun.


Oleanna is a two character play set in the professor’s rather grand campus office. Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., is John, the professor, and Jessica Johnson is Carol, the student. Oleanna, at about 90 minutes, is presented in three acts without intermission, with short blackouts between acts one and two. During the first twenty minutes of the play, every hoary cliché known to professors everywhere is trotted out. Carol can’t understand the classroom discussions, so she sits in the corner and smiles. Carol can’t understand the text used in class (written by John). John asks, “What in the text don’t you understand?” Carol responds, “All of it!” Carol has trouble understanding any word which has more than two syllables. Carol also has a very short fuse in the temper department, often lashing out in childish, rather frightening scenes. Alas, John is also a distracted mess. John is anticipating tenure, and to celebrate John and his wife are purchasing a home nearby. Phone calls are constant and distracting. It would seem that John has never established adult boundaries. His wife and a friend call John seemingly every three minutes to complain, whine, and bother him even while he repeatedly tells them he is busy discussing matters with a student. And Carol remembers this later when she becomes, all of a sudden, multisyllabic and vehement in expression, and a skilled debater since she has been quickly and magically educated by what she often calls “her group.” She calls her professor a clown, because a professional who isn’t respected by those close to him will not earn the respect of strangers. Immediately, we cringe over this toxic stew bubbling before us. Matters are not helped by John’s cavalier, chatty, inappropriate handling of this problem student. John chats about his wife, his new house, his career, and everything his student could not care less about. At more than one point Carol reminds John that she is here to discuss her grades. John is unprofessional at best. How he’s taught for ten years can only be a sign of great luck. Experienced professionals learn that psychologically troubled people are to be referred to places where they can receive appropriate professional help.  This help could be psychological, tutoring, or a visit to their campus advisors. Instead, John wants to be chums, saying he wants to see her alone in his office to provide extra attention to her needs, etc. His lack of personal boundaries and professionalism surely leads to his own destruction.


As seen here, Oleanna has its rough spots in direction and the three-quarters-round seating needs special accommodation by the audience. Watching Oleanna is a painful experience. Nevertheless, Oleanna should be required viewing by every female dentist who is groped by her male patient, every professor who is asked, “What can I do to get an ‘A’?” or is threatened by a student, or who is punched in the face by two fighting female students, or the nurse who is beaten by her patient, and the police officer, physician, and pharmacist.  Nearly every line of this eminently unlikable play is a lesson in what not to do with a student, client, or patient. In short, Oleanna is a dose of tough love every professional should experience.


Oleanna is at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA, until February 17. Meanwhile, Ken Ludwig’s A Comedy of Tenors is appearing on the main stage until March 15. For information about these shows, and the entire season, visit .


NOTE: Opinions are those of the author, and not necessarily those of or of any organization or business that the author is assosciated with.

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