In this play, sexual harassment is at the epicenter, but the harassment is dubious, interpreted, skewed, absurdly subliminal if even present, as each of the two characters—John, a professor about to take tenure, and Carol, a student struggling with more than grades—defend their interpretations of the language of the student-professor dynamic.
Confused and at the end of her academic rope, Carol comes to John’s office to express concerns about failing his course. A male arm around female shoulders, a bargain to come to the office to learn all she can from all he knows, and the grade will become an A, and a tension is established that carries the play. Yet all is not quite so simple as an offer to show that she can study hard and prove herself deserving of the almighty A. With each well-intended appointment, Carol arrives, but John is on the phone, or takes a phone call, or makes a phone call. In the middle of Carol’s sentences, the phone will ring. John will put her off at key intellectual moments to talk to his wife about the new house that they plan to buy (once he is tenured). John makes Carol wait while he finishes phone discussions regarding logistics of the house. John stops their study sessions to answer the questions that the caller has about the house.
So the phone—clearly the symbol of the power of language and the power to interrupt, intercept, interject, or mute the language of the less important student—ushers in the true themes of Oleanna, themes of language, restrictions of language, power, and power through language. Nowhere in the play while the curtain is up does John sexually harass Carol. Yet his impervious position of power and his manner of espousing antiacademia, lecturing the attentive note-taking Carol, and interrupting repeatedly her attempts to take power by using the language from which she is distanced from the start, impel the student to challenge John in the only way that she can to turn the desks: She uses language, that which she has claimed is inaccessible to her, to bring him down. She accuses him of raping her, maligns his direction, and seethes venom about being a former victim and about having the power to take the case to the cutting place—the tenure committee—in a manner that elicits the basest of unnatural and natural responses at once: John resorts to violence, to lifting his office chair over his head, at the ready to bring it crashing down over her head.