‘Oleanna,’ overtaken by real life (Walnut Street Theatre)

Jessica Johnson and Johnnie Hobbs Jr. in

Jessica Johnson and Johnnie Hobbs Jr. in "Oleanna" at Walnut Street Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin}

You’d think that David Mamet’s 1992 play “Oleanna,” about a college student who challenges her professor’s behavior then escalates her charges as he protests, would fit neatly into today’s news cycles. That’s a likely reason Walnut Street Theatre is staging the play, now on its intimate third-floor stage.

But real life has overtaken “Oleanna,” first performed just after Anita Hill confronted Clarence Thomas during the Senate’s confirmation hearings. Thomas made out much better than the professor in “Oleanna,” whose tenure committee apparently considers allegations of sex-tinged abuse differently from the U.S. Senate.

Mamet’s play was prescient. A real-life controversy was his inspiration, but who could foresee the time when women and men would come forward, along with journalists and state attorneys, in a critical mass to call out abusers? Taken all together, accusations range from stunning to questionable, but silence is now a default option and not a general standard.

The odd way “Oleanna” now plays into all this, and plays generally, is obvious at the Walnut, where Jessica Johnson portrays the evermore strident student and Johnnie Hobbs Jr. is the increasingly unwound professor in the production directed by Debi Marcucci, on a handsome whitewashed set by Roman Tatarowicz that is the professor’s office.

The action begins with a meeting between the two, called by the professor. It goes badly. His wife keeps phoning urgently about the house they’re trying to buy with his expected raise when he’s granted tenure. Between these frantic calls, he tells the student her work is not up to par. She tells him she can’t understand his lectures and his book on education that’s part of the course.

She’s upset and not very articulate, and says she cannot grasp the class content or his lectures.  He’s accommodating and casually pompous — a bloviated stereotype of an ivory-towered professor whose teaching includes an idea that higher education is “systematic hazing” in several ways. He calls her dear and offers to give her an A if she’ll continue to meet with him. They speak in chunks of sentences, constantly interrupting each other — they’re frustrated. (So are we. No one speaks this way.)

The student believes her prof is putting the make on her. He says he considers his behavior as nothing more than offering to help a student in to better. She goes to the tenure committee with accusations and — here’s where I bail out of seeing “Oleanna” as anything other than forced and artificial — joins him for two successive meetings at which she’s suddenly smart, insistent, well-spoken. This is a different person from the clueless student we’ve just seen.

The production works well enough – Marcucci directs it with an emphasis on the growing number of allegations. Although the veteran actor Hobbs is too old for the role, he’s nevertheless convincing. Johnson, confronted by the fast change in her character that defies belief, still turns in a solid performance. The problems here are not the Walnut’s, they are the play’s. It’s time to retire “Oleanna.” We don’t need a piece of theater that forces an issue when life is providing more plausible, and horrible, examples.

“Oleanna” runs through Feb. 17 on the third-floor playing space at Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets. 215-574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.

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