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When the crowd rewrites the ending

Opening night audience changes Oleanna

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Tell it to the hand: Alan Campbell and Meredith Jones in Oleanna - PHOTO BY HILARY RUSSO

I thought back to the first time I ever reviewed an audience--instead of a performance--Thursday night after Hot Summer Nights' opening performance of Oleanna at the Kennedy Theatre. It was at the National Critics Institute in 2000, and my assignment actually wasn't to critique the crowd so much as simply pay attention to what it was doing during a show.

A strange errand, perhaps--but not a useless one. Part of what we learned that night involved the degree to which a house determines--or alters--the meaning of a play. Any actor who's ever felt a sated, sleepy audience drain the energy from a matinee after Sunday brunch knows what I'm talking about. But let's go further.

A century ago, historians note that minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment on Broadway. As the culture changed its views on race, it fell into disfavor. The transformation did not happen overnight. It involved hundreds of audiences, each doing something slightly different with a show than viewers did the month or year before. In short, the people changed its meaning, over time.

I believe something similar happened Thursday night with Oleanna.

I have to reveal two spoilers to talk about this--although that likely won't be spoiling much for most, since Oleanna has been staged at least five times locally in the past decade.

Judging by the majority of seats with "reserved for sponsors" placards on them, a dressy cross-section of Raleigh's upper business class weathered curtain speeches and Mamet's wry first act before adjourning to a hospitality tent for free drinks and hors d'oeuvres at intermission. Fortified, they returned, many with drinks in hand, for the last two harrowing acts.

As always in Oleanna, the balance of power shifted dramatically between John (Alan Campbell), a new--and somewhat naïve--professor of education, and his failing student, Carol (Meredith Jones). As always, we were asked to believe Carol makes a sudden, night-to-day transformation: In three weeks, an emotionally disturbed--and completely inarticulate--undergraduate who can't comprehend academic discourse magically becomes a woman sufficiently fluent in feminist theory and postmodern rhetoric to convince a faculty committee to deny John tenure.

The major change this audience made to Oleanna came at the last. As always, the third act ended in physical violence. After Carol's triumphant barrage of insults, her group's list of demands and her final order that John not call his wife "baby" during a phone call, John grabs Carol by the hair, punches her repeatedly and drags her on the floor across the room. He lifts a chair over her head, catches himself, and then puts it down. The play closes.

The point? When civilized discourse becomes too debased it collapses--and people turn to more primitive ways of resolving differences. It's an ending that has devastated every audience I've seen Oleanna with.

That is, until Thursday night. From that darkened room a great cry of satisfaction, punctuated by whoops and a couple of loud "Yeahs," rewarded John's final retaliation. They all but got on stage and high-fived him.

Is the debate over? Is violence now an appropriate response to aggravating feminists? Did this audience rejoice to see its wishes enacted on stage?

What did Raleigh's drinking business class add to the culture's conversation on gender, privilege and power by ratifying the rage at the end of Oleanna?

We close by acknowledging visual artist Amy Yoes' preoccupation with frames and borders--and her fundamental contribution to Mark Haim's Guide to Southern Trees (reviewed July 26). Yoes' line projections encroached upon Haim's character in one of the more thought-provoking works of the 2006 American Dance Festival. Her work is online at www.amyyoes.com.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

Correction: Sept. 6, 2006: Byron Woods' review of Guide to Southern Trees ("What we know now, part 1," July 26), and a subsequent reference to it on Aug. 9 should have credited Mark Haim and Amy Yoes as co-creators.

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