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Theater review: Blackbird Provides Riveting Revival of ‘Oleanna’

Oleanna 2The Oleanna debate has begun again in Nashville. And Blackbird Theater’s riveting production makes the revival of David Mamet’s 1992 thought-fest as powerful as it’s ever been.

David Compton and Jennifer Richmond are at the height of their acting powers as a tenure-seeking college professor and his perplexed student that engage in a ferocious conflict over political correctness, sexual power, academic freedom and other highly-charged topics. And director Wes Driver’s unique touches – from a play program that’s in the style of a legal indictment to theater-in-the-square staging – make this version of Oleanna quite enticing.

I’ve long had issues with the play itself, but in the hands of good directors and actors it’s a terrific two-hander. That was true in 2006 when René Copeland directed David Alford and Marin Miller in a Tennessee Repertory Theatre presentation of the piece and it’s no less true with Blackbird’s effort. At the risk of seeming lazy for quoting from my Tennessean review of that earlier show, I’ll use a passage to explain those issues:

“A play like this can be hard to believe when one considers it’s highly unlikely a student that filed (a sexual harassment) complaint would return alone — and more than once — to the professor’s office to talk with him. And having the story’s feminine viewpoint expressed by an immature, whiny, persistently angry young woman might be stacking the deck, even if the middle-aged male presented here is pompous and often insensitive.

“But Mamet does provoke audiences into exploring the dangers of political correctness and the misuses of sexual power. Perhaps that’s more important than having balanced character presentations or a common-sense storyline.”

As John, Compton does a marvelous job of deconstructing his character until the once smug and self-absorbed man is a shell of his former self; Richmond makes her character’s timid-to-tower-of-strength progression seem as natural as breathing air. It takes top-notch actors to do what these two accomplish, and anyone following Nashville theater over the years knows these two are among our best and brightest performers.

Driver, to borrow from the style of the show’s program, has “conspired” with Scenic Designer Andy Bleiler to create a real arena of inquisition and exploration at Lipscomb University’s Shamblin Theatre (the show resides in the Bennett Campus Center facility this weekend – I saw it there with an audience of Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars Conference attendees prior to its public opening Saturday – before transferring to the University Theater space near Sewell Hall and the school’s steam plant next weekend). Allowing the audience to sit on all four sides of John’s office is perfect – we feel like witnesses to a fight, which is precisely what Oleanna gives us: a savage contest of ideas where the pugilists give no ground to each other.

There are also noteworthy contributions to the show from Lighting Designer Stephen Moss, Fight Choreographer Eric D. Pasto-Crosby, Propsmaster Emory Colvin and Stage Manager Kat Hanrahan. They and all their Blackbird Theater colleagues make this Oleanna a powerful and engaging reminder of theater’s ability to put dramatic flesh on the bones of contentious issues and ideas.

Oleanna 1Blackbird Theater’s production of Oleanna runs through June 15 on the campus of Lipscomb University (3901 Granny White Pk.). Shows are at 2:30 p.m. today (June 9) at the Shamblin Theatre and 7:30 p.m. June 13-15 at the University Theater. Tickets ($15; $10 for seniors ages 55 and older, students and Lipscomb faculty) are available online by clicking here; the play is recommended for mature audiences only. For more information please visit blackbirdnashville.com or call (615) 966-7075.

*Photos by Mark Pleasant courtesy Blackbird Theater.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).