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Saturday, March 15, 2003

The storm that blew through here last night would have kept me safe and warm inside my house, except for one thing. Mom and I are season subscribers to the Santa Rosa JC Theatre Art Department's student productions, and I already had the tickets for last night's performance of "The Laramie Project."

It's an ambitious venture, because you have eleven actors representing the twenty-nine thousand residents of Laramie during the year or so after the killing of Matthew Shepard. All the people interviewed for the project are portrayed using their own words, and there are as many different viewpoints as there are personalities.

At times the same actor plays two people who take opposite positions on subjects that are controversial in Wyoming (and most places, obviously) — gay rights, the death penalty, hate crime legislation — and they might perform both roles in the same scene. It takes a lot of imagination to differentiate the characters, and the students young and old do it well. It's a powerful play simply because it lets you into the minds of people whom a less honest playwright and a less competent director might easily demonize.

Somehow it's possible to see through the stereotypes this way, and you begin to realize how superficial news accounts are. The evening news programs, in the name of digging deeply into an important story, tend to try to answer the most sensationalistic questions only, and turn the human beings involved into cartoonish caricatures of real people.

It's only when someone takes the time to try to understand that you get any real depth. That's what "The Laramie Project" attempts to do, and it succeeds in reminding us that people are far more complex than can ever be revealed in snapshots and sound bites. There's always more to the story, and a person can perform the most vile, evil act imaginable and still have redeeming qualities.

A vicious killer can make you laugh and cry, even while you hate him for what he did. Maybe you see this as a chilling indictment of society's tolerance, but I see it as an affirmation that humanity transcends the sins it commits, as individuals or as societies. That's the only way we can have hope for a future that isn't totally bleak.

But wait. What I really wanted to talk about were the high school kids sitting in the row behind us. They were very animated before the play started, and then they seemed to follow the staging and dialog more intensely than I would have expected. It took me a while to realize that they're performing the same play, but that was the only way their comments made sense.

At first it was disconcerting, because they seemed to be laughing at inappropriate times. Then it dawned on me that they were reacting not to what was being said, but to the actors' choices with lines and mannerisms. Between acts (there are two intermissions), they discussed in detail the performances they were watching on the stage, and how they were different from their own interpretations.

They were there not just to be entertained but to study, and I think in the end they got as much out of it as anyone. They already knew the characters, and they got fresh insight into the real people behind those characters by seeing them through the eyes of different actors. They might have been there to critique the production, but they were very generous in saying things like, "She's better than I am," or, "I might try what he did with my character."


The neighborhood cat, making itself at home in my garden.

It feels awkward to talk so glibly about a performance piece which is, after all, about a young man who was tied up, beaten, tortured and left to die alone on a cold October night. Matthew Shepard and his two killers were all barely old enough to be served drinks in a bar. There's no doubt he was chosen as a victim because he was gay, but he was an easy mark because he was slightly built and outnumbered.

It's a crime that can occur wherever this kind of bullying is tolerated. It's the people of Laramie who have had to deal with the stigma, because that's where it did happen. But we're all guilty whenever we turn our backs on the attitudes that allow the weaker members of society to be victimized by the stronger. If the play teaches us anything, it's that Laramie can't be dismissed as an aberration.

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You'd think with the cat around so much of the time, the birds would be making themselves scarce. But no, they're here and very vocal. It's a symphony of birdsong whenever it's warm enough for me to be outside, or even to have the door open while I'm working.

The photo above, by the way, was taken through a window. I tried to get closer, but as soon as I opened the door, the cat crawled into an opening in the plants just behind it. It was in no hurry to get away, but it was quite deliberate in making itself invisible to me.

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