‘Alma Mater’ Review: A Timely if Overplotted Drama About Feminism and Academia

When too many contemporary theatre writers mistake the grinding of political axes for properly developed drama, it’s a relief to realize that Australian playwright Kendall Feaver is more than aware of the importance of well-peopled plot. Her campus drama “Alma Mater” is driven by fierce arguments around consent, abuse, personal responsibility, victimhood, empowerment, race and more, all of which are woven into a taut storyline. But for all the adroit positioning of points of view, it becomes clear that having too much plot is as problematic as having too little.

A venerable “ivy-clad” fictional college has taken the bold step of seeming to embrace change by appointing not simply a female “master” for the first time, but someone who has a background not in academia but in journalism. And more than that, the journalism of Jo (a blithe, deliciously sarcastic Justine Mitchell) has been staunchly feminist, 1980s-style. Feaver then sets her up in opposition with Nikki (a superbly zealous Phoebe Campbell), one of her third-year students who brings a grievance to her, only to take offence at, as she sees it, being patronized by Jo.

And when the now already aggrieved Nikki discovers Paige (Liv Hill), a first-year student disguising her distress over a sexual assault that took place the night before on her first night in college, the stakes rocket. Nikki assumes responsibility not only for helping Paige but for turning the episode into a fight over rape culture, first with the college authorities, and then much more widely as everything moves onto the Internet with predictably disastrous ramifications.

History, argues Nikki, is in the their hands as young women. But for all its talk — this is very much built more on talking than dramatizing — the play is, at its heart, pitting fourth wave feminism against arguments that have gone before in previous waves as exemplified by Jo.

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As the #MeToo anger escalates, the more both the audience and further characters are drawn in. There’s the college board, represented by Nathaniel Parker’s benign professor Michael and his lecturer wife Leila (patient Nathalie Armin). In a neat twist, just before the intermission, Tamara, mother of the accused student, played with winningly icy deliberation by Susannah Wise, appears and shines another light on the situation.

Although the events pile up throughout the second act, so do the problems. It’s initially impressive that Feaver is not over-simplistically taking sides and both Jo and Nikki are better at talking than listening, and consequently make bad assumptions and mistakes. But that evenhandedness begins to feel forced because so many plot developments are worked into two and a quarter hours of stage time (plus intermission). Too many of the cast are playing mouthpieces more than satisfying characters. The combination of so much narrative plus the succession of two-hander confrontations not only makes everything schematic; it also increasingly feels like a six-episode TV drama struggling as a play.

It’s not director Polly Findlay’s fault that her rather bald production lacks a controlling metaphor — although an outsized one is quite literally dragged into a contrived final scene. Findlay calibrates the fights well but the overall effect is too neat and airless.

The surprise of the production is the unexpected casting of Jo. On press night, Lia Williams pulled out due to a severe injury. She has since been replaced by Justine Mitchell who took over at no notice. Despite, at the performance reviewed, still using her script occasionally (the part is very long), Mitchell is mesmerizing. An actor with a very different and more buoyant energy to Williams, she makes Jo gleam with warm self-confidence. By the end, her battle-weary character is rightly and wrongfully undone. Mitchell keeps her kindness and killer instinct grippingly in balance.

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