"The Laramie Project" Examines a Troubled Town in Crisis; Theatrical Mosaic Portrays the Murder of Matthew Shepard
by Donald Gilpin
On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped from a Laramie bar by two men about his age, severely beaten, robbed, taken to a remote area outside of town, tied to a fence and abandoned. He was found the next day in critical condition. He died in the hospital several days later.
Over the ensuing year and a half, New York playwright and director Moises Kaufman, along with the actors and writers who comprise his Tectonic Theater Project, visited Laramie six times and conducted more than 200 interviews. Those interviews transcribed, edited and shaped by Mr. Kaufman, head writer Leigh Fondakowski and others became The Laramie Project, a remarkably gripping and earnest work of journalistic theater that opened in Denver in 2000 and subsequently moved to the Union Square Theatre in New York for a successful run.
Theatre Intime's undergraduate troupe has embraced the challenges of this rich and disturbing ensemble piece, and, under the direction of sophomore Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, has mounted a worthy production that runs through next Saturday at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.
In its directness, its voices of ordinary people, its minimal staging, The Laramie Project is reminiscent of Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic Our Town. But in its focus on a crisis and its vast scope in providing so many diverse perspectives, it more resembles the documentary drama tour de force of Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror (1992) on the clashes between Jewish and African-American residents of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, or her Twilight (1993), which portrays a multitude of perspectives on the disturbances in Los Angeles surrounding the Rodney King verdict.
Despite its fragmentary structure with more than 50 different scenes (called "moments" here) and more than 60 different characters played by the ten members of the Intime ensemble with little support from set, props or costumes, The Laramie Project tells its story and depicts the world of Laramie, Wyoming, with striking clarity and engaging theatrical flow. From the opening scene to the final glimpse of "the sparkling lights of Laramie" two and a quarter hours later, the drama sustains its emotional and intellectual hold, taking its audience through the gamut of sorrow, despair, shame, anger, and bewilderment, but not without moments of humor, sympathy and hope.
In its efforts to provide, as the local Catholic priest urges, a "correct" representation of Laramie, the play maintains an objective journalistic approach, letting the voices of Laramie speak for themselves. The Laramie Project certainly confronts the horror of the events of October 1998, but it also offers at least the hint of transcendent compassion, love and meaning in the death of Matthew Shepard, its consequences and the atonement of a whole town, perhaps a whole society.
Through the voices of bartenders, limousine drivers, professors, ministers, actors, surgeons, college students, housewives, police detectives, friends and family of Matthew Shepard and of the criminals, and dozens of others, The Laramie Project portrays how ordinary people are affected by extraordinary events. It tells a story and seeks to understand the meaning of that story. Many of the play's issues of gay rights and homophobia, of community responsibility, violence and class have, due in part to the death of Matthew Shepard, become critical issues in our national dialogue over the past five years.
Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins has directed with intelligence and a deft sense of pacing. The actors are well rehearsed. The scenes, or "moments," flow swiftly, with the assistance of Scot Grzenczyk's functional lighting design. The members of Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins' company vividly create a fascinating panorama of characters.
Charif Shanahan, stern and focused with sharp, clean-cut features, delivers a moving portrait of a middle-aged gay resident of Laramie watching the homecoming parade that turns into a huge rally of support for Matthew Shepard. Mr. Shanahan then, in the most stirring moment of the evening, transforms into Matthew Shepard's father in the courtroom, directly addressing one of the murderers: "You robbed me of something very precious and I will never forgive you for that. Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life and may you thank Matthew every day for it."
Jon Ryan provides several high energy, good-natured characterizations and a touch of levity, especially as a limousine driver who had taken Shepard to a gay bar and as the bartender at the Fireside Bar, the last place Shepard was seen in public on the night of October 6. Aliza Kennerly is thoroughly clear and convincing as a longtime local resident, a lesbian professor and an actor/interviewer and a reporter, among other figures. Sherry Rujikarn grows as the evening progresses, taking on powerful roles as a Muslim university student who has lived most of her life in Laramie ("These are people trying to distance themselves from this crime. And we need to own this crime. Everyone needs to own it. We are like this."), then as the policewoman, the first officer to arrive at the scene of the crime.
Alexis Schulman delivers a down-to-earth, thoroughly credible portrayal as Shepard's best friend, then as a lesbian turned activist by the events surrounding the murder, while Ben Cholok does first-rate character work in a wide variety of roles as the chief investigating detective, the university president and the Tectonic Theater project leader Moises Kaufman. Scott Elmegreen presents moving monologues in the poignant roles of a theater major whose parents refuse to support him when he plays the part of a gay character in a production of Angels in America, then the young man on a bicycle who first comes upon Matthew Shepard's beaten body, then as Shepard's academic advisor, describing the promising young man and his aspirations.
Maura Cody is strong as the University of Wyoming theater professor and as the middle-aged Laramie resident and mother of the policewoman who responded to the 911 call and worried about contracting HIV. Artem Pyatakov and Amy Widdowson round out the cast less consistently convincing in their character stretches, but with some memorable moments nonetheless.
Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins stages the myriad scenes of this play as simply and straightforwardly as possible, with the actors often just sitting or standing downstage facing the audience. The simplicity is appropriate and effective, given the nature of the material and the disjointed journalistic style of the text, but a bit more staging, using an occasional prop, furniture item, more of the upstage area or one or two more costume pieces, would have been helpful in contributing texture, color and perhaps even more clarity to the proceedings. There were moments when the downstage actors caused sightlines problems, obscuring upstage actors who were speaking.
None of these minor matters, however, nor the macabre set design by Rebecca Simson and Edwin Davisson consisting of dark passageways filled with chains, barbed wire, pipes and other metallic configurations leading to the downstage area detract significantly from the overall power and poignancy of this moving production.
Mr. Kaufman's play provides an astonishing glimpse of a particular place at a particularly critical time in its history, but as he points out, and the dynamic Intime troupe affirms, this work is "not only about where Laramie was at the end of the millennium, but where we are as a country not only in relationship to homosexuality, but in relationship to class, economics and education all the fault lines in our society."
The Laramie Project runs through October 18 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.theatreintime.org for further information.