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'Third' is still a timely play

What happens when a renowned, liberal, diversity-embracing female Ivy League professor gets a term paper from a white male student from the Midwest who is on the wrestling team and seems to be rich — and the paper (on Shakespeare’s King Lear) is as brilliant as anything she could write?

An intellectually honest professor would be expected to grade the paper for what it is, not who HE is, but in a society (ours) mired in PC, identity politics and fake (fill in the blank), the professor in Ashland Contemporary Theatre’s “Third” fails as badly as all the “neo-cons” she despises often and loudly.

Livia Genise’s professor Laurie Jameson seems witty, smart and easy for liberals (is that still a word?) to cozy up to as she shrieks at Bush fabricating his Iraq invasion on TV. This play, by Wendy Wasserstein, opened in 2005, and one can only imagine what she would pen today.

Jameson’s daughter Emily (Beth Boulay), a Swarthmore student, playfully dings her for her less-than-judicious ranting, a warning that mom might be heading off the edge. Emily barks, hey, you would accept the paper if it were written by a gay Native American!

Woodson Bull III (namesake of the play) submits his term paper. The professor dismisses it as plagiarism. Even if it’s not cut and pasted from the internet, she reasons, the ideas have been put forth before, and he just revoiced them. They converse. It comes out he’s on a wrestling scholarship. Now there’s a cliche of thick-headed doltishness, from which no smart paper could arise. She even asks if he’s like Hulk Hogan. His dad and grandfather went to the school, so they must be rich donors and, she surmises, that’s how he got in the university. How patriarchal! She slanders him privately as “a walking red state” and even chides, “Are you a REPUBLICAN?!!”

From there, it’s only a few short steps to academic probation, loss of scholarship, expulsion. She drags him before a committee of professors to judge his fate. However, she is so confident of her judgments that she neglects to present any evidence — and she loses. Her loving friend, professor Nancy Gorgon (Renee Hewitt) even has to vote against her, straining their bond.

If you’ve been playing along to this point, seeing Jameson as a sensible, informed, rightfully outraged female, your world flips upside down and you now get to look through the looking glass in the opposite direction. Now it’s a morality play. The professor has lived a life lauded for getting everything right, and now it’s all wrong. She’s become what she hates — a true believer. And she doesn’t listen.

Never has this play been more needed. Our “national conversation” (hah!) went in the ditch a long time ago. Everyone is right (or left) and their enemies just need to go away. No one is listening.

“We live in a political situation where we’ve normalized untruths, exaggeration and just bald-faced lying,” says producer Jeannine Grizzard in an interview. “The play is about someone who loses intellectual honesty in the service of her intellectual goals. But she rethinks her mistakes and makes amends because evidence and facts matter.”

It’s interesting, she adds, that Wasserstein never confirms whether Third, the student, is innocent. He also errs by not fetching his notes and drafts of the paper, to disprove the accusation.

Like our society, Jameson has fallen to ad hominem argument (against the person, not the facts), says Grizzard, adding, “We’ve made ad hominem an art form.”

A big lesson of the play is that the professor, says Grizzard, was practicing essentialism, which says all people in a group — say gay or straight, black or white, male or female, Republican or Democrat — have essential characteristics of that group, and that’s the main part of who they are.

Commenting on the ACT page, Marla Estes of Ashland, workshop facilitator and founder of Building Bridgers, which addresses the political partisan divide in our country, says the play “blew me away,” as it addressed, “The blindness of ideology, even when its roots begin with the best of intentions (and) what happens when we start ‘othering,’ stereotyping and labeling through our assumptions of group identity, and cease to see and relate to people as individuals.”

The play runs Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons through Nov. 24 at Carpenter Hall of Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

For details and tickets, see ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org.