ST. PETERSBURG — By the middle of Oleanna, when the act closed with a shriek and a slam and the cruel deadening of the lights, I realized I was so tense I had been chipping off my nail polish around the nail beds.
It was a rainy Monday night performance tucked inside the Freefall Theatre Company complex in St. Petersburg. A friend invited me to a small industry showing of the play by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Mamet, a bonus performance held so actors and theater people in town can catch shows, too.
With just a smattering of folks in the crowd, Christopher Rutherford and Emily Belvo nonetheless delivered a detonating rendition of Mamet's controversial work, a two-person play that explores the murkiest valleys of sexual harassment, fault and absolution.
Fortunately, there are a few more performances left of this sublime gem, an independent production directed by Brandon Windish, who rented space at Freefall to produce Oleanna. Once upon a time, Freefall was Second Church of Christ, Scientist, and Oleanna is set in a part of the building that still feels very much like a chapel. It was a perfect place to witness such a moral tug of war.
Oleanna is all about power, written around the time of the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas scandal when sexual harassment was at the forefront of the collective consciousness.
It unfolds in three acts inside the office of John, a college professor. Carol, a student, comes to see him. She's having trouble understanding John's pedantic teachings and needs help passing the course.
John is distracted. He is up for tenure and is buying a house with his wife and the phone keeps ringing. He still engages Carol, sparring with her over a slap-shot steam of academic posturing that at times makes no sense. He offers to pass her if she comes back to see him again.
What happens next happens. We see it happen. But what really happened?
That's the driving question of Oleanna. What does a touch mean? Who gets to decide what a touch means and how far the fallout should spread? We're launched, teeming with anxiety, into the second act. Carol has filed a complaint against John and the power starts to shift. Everything he has worked for is now on the line.
Rutherford plays John with level smarm and arrogance, but not so heavy-handed that we lose sight of the vulnerable human being inside. He feels like the same person throughout the play, but one who has been beaten down and changed through his interactions with Carol. Maybe it's his own fault. Maybe it's not. Maybe it's somewhere in the middle.
Belvo breathes terrifying life into Carol. She is unassuming and naive, then ferocious, then fearless yet fragile as glass, and the beauty in the performance is that it's so hard to tell which one is really her.
Rutherford and Belvo dance a tripping tango of Mamet's trademark dialogue, stilted and bombastic, always overlapping. The characters stammer with staggering awkwardness, like when two people are trying to cross a street on the same side.
With both characters so brimming with resentment, the play can only end one devastating way. Even if you know it's coming, you will not know it's coming until it comes. And whether power is ever really restored is a question to ask yourself.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.