‘Oleanna’ scores a hit

The excellent production of David Mamet’s two-person play portrays intense confrontation in three surprisingly different acts.

By Ward Lauren / Special to The Malibu Times

Odds are the 60 or so Malibuites who didn’t show up to fill the remaining seats for the opening night of “Oleanna” at the Malibu Stage Co. last Friday night will be kicking themselves when word gets out about the outstanding quality of this latest production and the sterling performances by the play’s two actors.

David Mamet’s super-loquacious dialog and the driving intensity of its delivery between principals is typically in evidence in “Oleanna” as John, a college literature professor and author, meets with Carol, his earnest but diffident and deceptively shy student, in the three very different scenes that comprise the 80-minute play. Their conversation-in rapid-fire, fractured and incomplete sentences, interrupting and talking over one another-is completely realistic and understandably human, characteristic of a Mamet confrontation.

The first act is devoted to John’s earnest but frustratingly fruitless attempts to find a means of reaching his student, to find some common ground of understanding that will enable him to help her believe in her own ability to learn the course he is teaching. Carol, speaking nervously in fits and starts and sudden jumps of subject, wails that she didn’t understand a thing she read in his book. She is convinced she is dumb and is going to fail the course.

The challenge of such an admission cannot be ignored by a sincere teacher such as John, of course. This drives him to think of and suggest new and inventive devices that may be the key to keeping Carol in the course. As she despairs he becomes increasingly warm and supportive, fervently trying to bolster her self-confidence.


The scene, in fact the entire play, is sparked by touches of human comedy in the dichotomy of concentration that bedevils John as he deals with phone calls from his Realtor, who is trying to close the deal on a new house for John and his wife, and thoughts of his pending review by the tenure board of his university. These two subplots become woven into the full dramatic fabric of the story as it builds to its surprising conclusion.

The surprise begins to emerge immediately in the second act, in which a much more composed and assertive, not to say militant, Carol has agreed to meet John to explain the report that she, and her “group,” have filed with the tenure board. The report, which amounts to nothing less than character assasination, stems from Carol’s interpretation of John’s ministrations to her in their first meeting.

Without going into the details, so as not to spoil for future audiences the effect of the final denouement in the brief but explosive last scene, vague thoughts of the Salem Witch Trials come to one’s mind as Carol’s accusations are revealed. She appears to have undergone a complete metamorphosis of character; she is not the same young woman we saw in the first scene. John, too, is a different man, incredulous, on the defensive, unsure of himself, pleading.

It’s to the credit of these two young actors that they carried off these about-faces so convincingly. Darby Stanchfield, Carol, has obviously come a long way from the wilds of Alaska where she grew up, and shows the results of her acting start at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, plus stage, screen and TV roles. Stephen Caffrey’s credibility as John reflects his years of experience in stage productions from California to New York and in between, as well as TV series and motion pictures. Both actors expressed a special satisfaction in performing a Mamet play.

“You’re swimming in a sea of words,” Caffrey said. “With Mamet it’s the words, yes, but it’s what’s in between the words, too. It’s like you’re bouncing on the punctuation, and you just hope you can do it justice. This play feels very much as though it’s a first-act play, then the tables turn completely around and the anxiety goes from one person to the other.”

“This play is really fun for me because it’s such a challenging role,” Stanchfield said. “Carol is so different from who I really am, it’s like stepping into a different skin. This is my first time on the Malibu stage and I love it; it’s nice to have so much support.”

“Oleanna” was directed by actor, director and award-winning short filmmaker Taylor Nichols. Danielle Horn was stage manager. Costume design was by Kirston Mann; sound design by Terrence Davis, lighting design by Austin Smith and set design by Oz.

The efforts of everyone involved have produced a show that should not be missed. Truth be known, this reviewer has never been a Mamet fan. But that seems fated to change after seeing this production.

“Oleanna” continues through July 9 with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets cost $25 and can be obtained by calling 589.1998. Malibu Stage is located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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