Review: ‘Oleanna’ is entertaining yet nourishing food for thought

arts & entertainment


Have you ever been involved in a conversation with someone so frustrating you could pull your hair out by its roots or that of the person frustrating you? Imagine both people in a conversation feeling the same way? That passive-aggressive conflict is laid out in full view during the controversial, but captivating two-person play, Oleanna, currently at Riverside Theatre. 

John the pompous teacher and Carol the sheepish student misunderstand each other so it seems

From the opening scene, you can tell this is going to soon become intense, and by the time you leave the theater, you will be talking about it all the way home. The David Mamet play centers on a failing college student in conference with her professor. She is timid at the beginning, listening to him arguing on the phone about the closing on his family’s new home and some complications affecting it. He is buying this home as a result of his pending approval for tenure status at the school. The professor, John (played by Broadway veteran Denis Lambert), is postponing an important meeting about that closing to speak with his student, Carol (played by actress/writer Dani Nelson). He is already frustrated about the real estate deal but is soon equally frustrated by Carol, whose sheepish demeanor gets to the point I thought the audience wanted to go up on stage and shake some sense into her.

Thinking he is helping her, John begins talking about himself, his career, upcoming tenure hearing, new house, children going to private school, etc. She tries to explain her concerns as he constantly interrupts her and she in turn interrupts him. The audience is clearly on her side at first because of his boorish behavior and attitude, while she is obviously troubled, hates herself, feels she is a failure and doesn’t seem to understand anything about his class on education or the book he has written as a basis for the class. He becomes increasingly frustrated with her and more demonstrative, while also being constantly interrupted by phone calls from his wife and attorney. I regretted not bringing my Xanax with me watching his paternalistic ignorance and her beaten down reaction to the tapes replaying in her head since childhood.

John tries to comfort and confront her in what he feels are legitimate attempts to break her out of her shell, not realizing his actions could be interpreted as intimate attempts to force her into a subservient sexually tinged relationship.

So, the tables are turned when she files a complaint with the tenure committee, and they put his promotion on hold. From there, we begin to see what is really going down and it grows increasingly uncomfortable. The audience sat in stunned silence. You could hear a pin drop as the intimate Waxlax Theatre audience focused on the increasingly intense conversation, interrupted when the phone rang at the most inopportune times.

Looking at this performance from a macro perspective, you can see how her reaction against unfair societal norms could evolve into “wokeness,” this week’s buzz word.  It arrives there by our close-minded arrogance about returning to traditional values when those values never favored a growing and more frustrated underclass of citizens. But then the pendulum swings the other way, possibly too far, as it enters the realm of wokeness.

This play is instructive in that it helps you understand how both sides of the conflict evolved in our society. As entertainment, it is totally spellbinding. When the actors take their customary bows at the end, they are holding hands and give the impression John and Carol have made up and will love each other – no, wait – they are actors, Denis Lambert and Dani Nelson, not the characters they so vividly portrayed.

You cannot leave the theatre untouched by their emotional performance and it will make for some stimulating conversation on the way home. Just make sure you check that conversation at the front door.

Oleanna is playing at the Riverside Theatre Waxlax Stage through April 9. Tickets are $65 and can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 772-231-6990 or online at Clearly, this show contains adult language and situations.

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