Oleanna resonates as it returns to local stage

Vernon's Hub Arts Collective brings David Mamet's two-person play Oleanna to life as its entry into the Okanagan Zone Drama Festival.

In 1991, an American lawyer named Anita Hill accused her former boss, supreme court judge Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment.

The resulting hearing made the news worldwide, with accusations flying on both sides.

The following year, American playwright David Mamet saw his play Oleanna make its premiere at his own Back Bay Theater Company in Cambridge, Mass.

The play opened up a whole new can of worms and continues to be staged to this day because of its subject matter and the way it is handled: a no holds barred battle between the sexes in a politically correct society.

The one-man/one-woman production is the latest play directed by Matt Brown of The Hub Arts Collective, and the subject matter, he says, still hits close to home 20 years later.

“It’s a long time since I touched this play, and this time I looked at it with fresh eyes,” said Brown, adding he thought of the 2012 Deborah Ashton case, where Ashton, a former Vernon elementary school teacher and vice-principal, was acquitted on five counts of allegedly having a sexual relationship with a former student.

In Oleanna, it’s the power struggle between John, the university professor, and his student, Carol, that explodes when Carol accuses him of sexual exploitation and, by doing so, spoils his chances of being accorded tenure.

“(The audience) is going to feel the violation for both the characters in the play. It has to be that way for it to be successful. We will have time to work through that feeling and hopefully everyone will understand it’s part of the art,” said Brown.

This also isn’t the first time Oleanna has been staged in Vernon. It was first seen at Powerhouse Theatre in 2000. Directed by Monty Hughes, who is also helming The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, currently on stage at Powerhouse (see page B6 for a review), Oleanna won best production at the Okanagan Zone (O-Zone) Drama Festival and went on to compete at Theatre BC’s Mainstage Festival that year.

Brown is hoping for a repeat result as Oleanna is the North Okanagan’s only entry into this year’s O-Zones.

Starring Chris Froese as the professor and Ashley Plomp as Carol, the play is also the first dramatic production to be produced by The Hub, besides children’s musical theatre, and is also the first time The Hub Arts Collective has been part of the O-Zone festival, which this year is being hosted by none other than  Powerhouse Theatre in Vernon.

“There is a story behind the play in that it got pulled from the O-Zones due to a producing change. But for me it was supposed to happen. It was a bump in the road and in 26 hours, we thought of things fast for us to be able to stay in the O-Zones,” said Brown. “We’ve worked hard for this.”

As the host theatre is not entering a play into the festival this year, Brown, who directed both the O-Zone and Mainstage best production winner, The Woman in Black (also starring Froese) for Powerhouse last year, says he seized the opportunity to direct a production at The Hub.

“This is our first production put on by us, but it was Powerhouse that brought us together,” said Brown, who recently directed Becky’s New Car for Powerhouse and also helmed 2011’s Lend me a Tenor, which featured both Froese and Plomp.

Without an army of volunteers, Brown is being assisted by Kristine Larsen and Starling Taylor to get the show stage ready. Together, they are working tirelessly on all that needs to be done, including the stage direction, set design, props, lighting, sound, etc.

“We put a lot of thought into what would work to put on the show in The Hub and later at Powerhouse for the O-Zones. It needs to be transferable,” said Larsen, who designed this set and also recently worked on set design for Powerhouse’s Becky’s New Car, with Cara Dunn. “The play needs to be kept confined and close. The set is basically a desk and some chairs, which gives a great sense of closeness, and we hope it transfers well.”

And as this is the work of Mamet, also author of another power struggle, between men, in Glengarry Glen Ross, the dialogue is especially edgy and real.

The script is a gift, but is also a tough read for an actor upon first glance, as Brown says Froese found out when he first started reading it.

“Chris said ‘give me 41 pages of random numbers and I have a better chance of memorizing that,’” said Brown, adding the challenge of directing Oleanna has also been harder than handling the dark material that was The Woman in Black. “Although Woman in Black was more lengthy, it was linear… (Mamet) writes in this conversational street dialogue. The characters change their minds mid-sentence and talk over each other.

“You don’t have to imagine the manipulation that goes on between these two characters. You could see it as a courtroom drama, but here we see all the tension between them in how they talk and react with each other.”

Oleanna runs at The Hub, 2906-30th Ave., next to the Towne Cinema, May 2, 3, 8, 9, 10 and 11 at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 except May 8, where all tickets are $10 or two for $15, available at the Ticket Seller (549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca), the Bean Scene, with a limited availability at the door.

Oleanna also opens the O-Zone Drama Festival, May 13 to 18, at Powerhouse Theatre. Five different plays from regional community theatres will be presented. More information is available at www.powerhousetheatre.net