For the heavy subject matter of the David Mamet play “Oleanna,” the Providence Players of Fairfax has opted for a more intimate setting at the Italian Café.
“We wanted to stretch ourselves artistically, and take on new material that may not quite fit with our mainstage offerings,” said Providence Players president Jayne Victor through press materials.
The play, about a professor named John (Christopher Crockett) on the verge of tenure and a student named Carol (Amanda Ranowsky) who accuses him of sexual harassment, is something that the Providence Players board felt the production would be better in a more intimate environment.
“There is no stage, simply a desk and a few chairs in the middle of the room, with chairs in the round. We wanted to keep the set simple and exposed — we are really putting these interactions between John and Carol under a microscope and inviting the audience to get up close and personal with the characters,” said “Oleanna” director Julia Janson, who notes that there will only be three feet between the front row and the performance area.
The playwright and screenwriter David Mamet has a long history of tackling uncomfortable topics whether the façade of upright politicians (“Wag the Dog”), the cruelty of capitalism (“Glengarry Glenn Ross”), minefields of relationships with respect to class (“Sexual Perversity in Chicago”) and the legal impunity of big corporations (“The Verdict”).
Mamet originally wrote a draft of this play about sexual politics but decided to complete it when the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991 and accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill made the topic even more salient.
According to Janson, the Brett Kavanaugh hearing and the Christine Blasey Ford testimony this past September was the main catalyst for the decision to stage this play because of it’s highly relevant to the cultural and political environment.
Janson notes that like our present society in the wake of many of the latest political scandals, the play is intended to produce and highlight a lot of mixed opinions.
“[The play] takes an ambiguous situation and puts it in front of the audience. Despite the same thing happening in front of 40 audience members, I can guarantee that people will see the situation very differently,” said Janson. “We view through the world through our own experiences so there are people who will say that what John does is completely innocent but there are other people who will say that’s creepy and that’s based on their life experiences.”
Janson sees a theme of the play as “preconception being dangerous.”
Looking at the interactions between Carol and John, she said, “There are so many moments in the show where we see this potential off-ramp to conflict if they only just talked.”
The hope, according to Janson, is that “We will show that this is an uncomfortable discussion with no capital ‘W’ wrong or no capital ‘R’ right.”
For actress Amanda Ranowsky, who has been with Providence Players for eight years, being part of a two-person ensemble is an exciting opportunity to stretch.
“It’s a really wonderful challenge. This is probably the meatiest role I’ve had to date,” she said.
Ranowsky previously worked with co-star Christopher Crockett and Janson on “August Maine.” Additionally, Crockett and Janson are married and rehearsed this play in their living room. In keeping with the intimacy of the atmosphere, there wasn’t a great deal of technical work needed for this play nor was it desired.
“We gave careful thought to the set pieces and props that are there to realistically create the tiny world of John’s office, but the team agreed that any tech past that would have served to be more distracting than beneficial,” said Janson.
This is the first Providence Players production to be held in this black box format but it doesn’t mean anything’s changing.
“The company is still staying very much on brand for mainstay productions. By doing it in its separate venue, we are allowing a branch, where we can do some of these more controversial shows in a smaller more intimate setting,” said Janson.
Although the play is being presented in a restaurant, the Providence Players wants to make clear that this is not dinner theater.
Audience members are invited to order dinner beforehand or after the show and will be allowed to have beverages during the play but dining options won’t be available during the course of the play itself.
Rather, the arrangement exists because of the existing relationship between The Italian Café and Providence Players.
The restaurant has sponsored Providence Players productions, catered their cast parties and is often where board meetings are held.
The room will seat 40 people and tickets will be $10. The play will be performed over two weekends, running from March 7 – 16 at 8 p.m. The Italian Café is located at 7161 Lee Highway, Falls Church.