The Seeing Place Theater puts up a powerful play on a shoestring budget with ‘The Laramie Project.’
Jonathan Miles, Elle Emerson and Kathryn Neville Browne in an interview with two of the Laramie town residents discussing the death of Matthew Shepard.
On October 6, 1998, a twenty-one-year-old student at the University of Wyoming named Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, beaten and left to die tied to a fence in the middle of the prairie outside Laramie, Wyoming because he was gay. Now, in a tiny black box theater on the fourth floor of a building just blocks off Broadway, the Seeing Place Theater brings his story back to life as part of this year's NYC Pride as they prove how much the tale still matters today.
The Laramie Project: Theater in Process
In the aftermath of the Matthew Shepard tragedy in 1998, Moises Kaufman and members of his theater company, the Tectonic Theater Project, traveled to Laramie, Wyoming to interview the town residents and make a piece of art that tried to understand how such a horrific incident could occur. As their trips continued and their relationship with the people of Laramie grew, Tectonic decided to make those interviews their story. The Laramie Project consists of a series of interviews reenacted on stage, with actors playing both the people of Laramie and the original members of Tectonic. This set of dozens of characters is by design performed by a rotating ensemble of actors who pick up each voice as it joins the story.
Together with the Tectonic interviewers, we reconstruct Matthew's story, from his personality to the night of his abduction to his death and the trial and sentencing of his murderers. But more than that, we witness the story of a town struggling to move on and of a theater company trying to understand the disconnect between a group of people claiming a "live and let live" attitude and the terror LGBT residents of Laramie felt about their precarious position.
There are several particularly powerful moments of the play. The collaging voices of the four priests (Baptist, Catholic, Unitarian and Mormon) in Laramie reacting to the attacks in drastically different ways; the end of Act One in which the boy who found Matthew, the police officer who brought him in and the doctor who treated him tell their heart-wrenching tales directly to the audience; and that same doctor struggling to give the Shepard family's statement to the press just after their son finally passed away from his coma.
Strength of the Ensemble
The Seeing Place Theater presents itself as a theater driven by actors, for actors, with an emphasis on the ensemble, so for them this show was a perfect fit. Actors slid easily in and out of roles while maintaining focus on whatever interview was currently in progress, a respectful embodiment of the original Tectonic interviewers and of the people of Laramie. There were stand-out performers, however, in particular Erin Cronican's empathetic portrayal of University of Wyoming theater professor Rebecca Hillicker and Brandon Walker, who occasionally stole the show with his larger-than-life performances of limo driver Doc O'Connor and bartender Matt Galloway, providing the piece's few but much-needed moments of humor. That Cronican and Walker are also the show's directors only added to their theatrical polish and to the power of the ensemble.
Overall, what most came across in the actors' performance was their transformative power as they took on characters of different ages, genders, ethnicities and political orientations than their own. Brian Stuart Boyd, for instance, who provides one of the framing narratives of the show as UW theater student Jedadiah Schultz, a boy open-minded enough to want to play LGBT characters, also takes on the roles of both of Matthew Shepard's murderers during their trials. Actors would often describe a person whom they had interviewed, then immediately step into that role, providing a sense of continuous storytelling crucial to this play. While spoken transitions were often messy and the variety of accents rather hit-or-miss, the heart of the show always came through.
The Simplicity of the Stage
In the style of a staged reading, there is a costume rack and props table easily visible to the audience onstage, from which the actors pull items when needed. The rest of the set is likewise sketched in, whether the incomplete pattern of wooden floorboards, a table with coffee and beer to be taken out when needed or the bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling to resemble stars. This simplicity allows the audience to focus only on the words of the text, which are then in crucial moments scrawled upon the pair of blackboards in the back of the stage by another actor to emphasize their meaning. By the end of the play, the boards are covered with excuses, denials and stunned realizations from a variety of characters.
Toward the end of the play, the Catholic priest, played by Jonathan Miles, asks the members of the theater company to "Just deal with what is true. You know what is true." But do we? The Laramie Project leaves so many questions unanswered: Did Matthew Shepard really make a pass at Aaron McKinney that night? If so, was McKinney justified in responding? Do the people of Laramie, Wyoming deserve to have the name of their town associated only with a brutal murder for the foreseeable future? And what does it mean that this crime could have happened anywhere?
Clearly, The Laramie Project still has value in today's day and age. Despite the inroads that the gay rights movement has made, LGBT people across America are still unsafe and discriminated against in a variety of ways. To anyone tempted to dismiss the risks, this play provides a shocking reminder of what some bigoted people are capable of. In fact, some of the themes of the play, such as a tendency toward victim-blaming, are applicable beyond the LGBT rights movement to larger frameworks of feminism and combatting racism. For all of these reasons as well as its ability to tell an incredibly compelling and honest story that opens up dialogue among many different points of view, The Laramie Project is a show that can't be missed.
The Laramie Project is playing through June 29 at the ATA's Sargent Theater, 314 West 54th St, 4th Floor.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.