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The current Jordan M. Smith/Ghost & Spice Productions presentation of Chicago dramatist David Mamet's Oleanna (1992), directed by Rachel Klem and starring Melissa Lozoff as Carol and Mark Jeffrey Miller as John, is more a litmus test for Political Correctness than a play. The more PC you are, the more you buy in to Mamet's far-fetched premise that a distraught failing female student, who arrives at a professor's office without an appointment, could misinterpret his sincere — if somewhat paternalistic — expressions of concern and attempts to comfort her as sexual harassment.
Thirty-odd years ago, when I was a TA (teaching assistant) in the English Department at East Carolina University, I knew enough never to meet a failing student of either sex alone, without witnesses. So, I find it impossible to believe that in these perilous times in academe, a veteran male professor, on the verge of being granted tenure, would risk his job, his career, and even his freedom by meeting one-on-one with a female student who is failing his class and obviously very, very upset about it — not unless he has a death wish!
Admittedly, John (Mark Jeffrey Miller) is one smug, supremely self-confident son of a gun, infatuated by the sound of his own voice and oblivious to the discomfort caused by his paternalistic attitude and gestures, such as trying to put his arm around the shoulder of a sobbing coed. He considers himself an iconoclast and delights in lampooning the stodginess of the educational establishment.
When confronted by Carol (Melissa Lozoff), a student from a lower socioeconomic background who complains that she cannot understand his lectures or his book, John offers to tear up her failing papers and start the class all over again as a one-on-one tutorial. If she will just meet with him a few times in his office to discuss the course, he will guarantee her an "A." (Would any real-life professor make this offer, let alone take this risk? I doubt it!)
Even though Ghost & Spice managing director Rachel Klem artfully orchestrates the action and elicits highly convincing characterizations from Mark Jeffrey Miller and Melissa Lozoff, the play's premise and plot twists are so preposterous that it is hard to take Oleanna seriously.
Miller is excellent as a sympathetic but hopelessly distracted professor doing his best to accommodate a student in distress, when he really should be across town, at a meeting with his wife Grace, his lawyer Jerry, and a Realtor®. When Carol arrives unannounced, without an appointment, John is in the midst of finalizing negotiations to buy a new house that the imminent granting of tenure will allow him to afford. Grace and Jerry are waiting for him at that house. Their repeated phone calls break John's concentration and irritate Carol more and more. (When doesn't John just turn off his cell phone, you may ask yourself? Why indeed!)
Melissa Lozoff is even better as Carol, the calculating coed from the wrong side of the tracks. Carol is what talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh would call a budding femi-Nazi. She has a giant chip on her shoulder that John doesn't see until it's too late.
Carol, quite frankly, is just not college material. She doesn't know the meaning of words such as "indictment," "paradigm," and "transpire"; she cannot understand her textbook or comprehend John's lectures; but she does know her "rights" and how to twist facts to her advantage when meeting with the tenure committee that will decide John's fate.
On the new PC campus, there has been a power shift from the sometimes stodgy and often conservative professors of the old educational establishment to the far-left would-be commissars of the new academic regime. The big loser, of course, is academic freedom — as John realizes too late to save himself from being another victim of Political Correctness, or to keep himself from lashing out violently when Carol finally stomps on his last nerve.
Jordan M. Smith in association with Ghost & Spice Productions presents Oleanna Friday-Saturday, Oct. 8-9, at 8 p.m. at Wellness Partners in the Arts, 319 W. Main St., Durham, North Carolina. $12 ($10 students and seniors). 919/384-9272. Ghost & Spice Productions: http://www.ghostandspice.com/. Oleanna (official UK site): http://www.oleanna.co.uk/ [inactive 10/04].