9/13/2019 THE LARAMIE PROJECT Theatrical Outfit
At first glance, The Laramie Project (conceived and created by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project) is a look at the 1998 kidnapping and murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard and its aftermath. We hear various descriptions of the crime from local townsfolk and friends of Matt, we see portions of the trials of his killers, we see media figures sensationalizing the incident, we see activists of every political stripe exploiting the tragedy to advance particular agendas.
Looking a tad deeper, we also see it is a play about creating theatre: Kaufman and his troupe are characters, we see their interactions with the witnesses, we see them affecting the town and its citizens, and, of course, we see the end product performed before our eyes.
And, looking even deeper, especially in the context of its repertory paring with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, we see a tale of America, about the divisions we experience every day – town/city, college/town, gay/straight, rancher/artist, cop/suspect, parents/children.
And, more than anything, we see the unstrained quality of mercy and empathy that may, in an ideal universe, break down those divisions so we may face the future united and whole, even though that the odds of that actually becoming reality are as distant as the lights of Laramie as seen from Matt Shepard’s fence
Some facts can be stated for certain:
10/5/1998 – University of Wyoming student Matthew (“Matt”) Shepard is alone at the Fireside Lounge of Laramie. He leaves with two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Later that night, both McKinney and Henderson are injured in a fight. Both men are arrested, and Matt’s bloody shoes and credit card are found in McKinney’s truck.
10/6/1998 – Matt’s comatose body is found tied to a fence several miles from town by Aaron Kreifels, who mistakes Matt for a scarecrow. He is taken to Laramie’s Ivinson Memorial Hospital, then to the Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, after it is determined that his injuries are too severe to be treated locally.
10/12/1998 – Matthew dies at 12:53 AM without ever regaining consciousness. McKinney and Henderson are charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping. Their girlfriends, Kristen Price and Chastity Pasley, are charged as accessories after the fact.
November 1998 -- Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project arrive in Laramie for their first visit
December 1998 – Chastity Pasley pleads guilty to being an accessory after the fact.
4/5/1999 – Henderson pleads guilty and agrees to testify against McKinney. He is sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
October and November 1999 – McKinney is tried and found guilty of felony murder. After the intervention of Matt’s parents, he is not sentenced to death, but to two consecutive life terms. Kristen Price, following her testimony, pleads guilty to a reduced charge of interference with a police officer.
1999 – The Tectonic Theater Project make six trips to Laramie, interviewing those involved with the crime and trial and those not involved. With hundreds of hours of conversations on tape, they create The Laramie Project.
2/26/2000 – The Laramie Project premieres at the Denver Center Theatre Company.
5/18/2000 – The Laramie Project transfers to New York City
September 2001 – The Laramie Project has its first Atlanta production at Actor’s Express.
2002 – The film version of The Laramie Project, developed for HBO, premieres at the Sundance Film Festival
February 2013, the full Laramie Project Cycle, including a new sequel – The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later – opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
9/13/2019 – The Laramie Project opens at Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit, running in repertory with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
9/30/2019 – The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is given a Staged Reading at Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit to benefit Georgia Equality.
I include these production details, because the play is as much about the creators as it is about Laramie in 1998. Moisés Kaufman himself is our Stage Manager, setting up the theatrical conceits that let each member of the 10-strong ensemble play a large roster of different characters. The versatile cast members switch personae, sometimes mid-scene (or even mid-speech), and yet it all remains clear and compelling.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this production truly knocked my socks off. It tells its compelling story from multiple political agendas, with a minimum of judgmentalism towards even the “villains” of the piece; in fact it goes out of its way to paint the killers as “kids just like Matt,” having the same doctor treating both Matt and one of his killers on October 5. He didn’t know at the time but, as he makes clear, once he found out, he didn’t care – “They were both my patients, and I cared about them equally” (or words to that effect).
And it climaxes in that heart-rending statement made by Matt’s father at the McKinney trial, in which he pleads for the mercy of a life sentence, in spite of not forgiving the crime, because it was “what Matt would want me to do.” “I hope you have a very long life, and I hope you thank Matthew for every day of it.” (It should be noted that almost every word of this piece is taken directly from official documents or the interview tapes made by the Tectonic company members.)
As in Our Town, this ensemble is a marvel of interconnectivity and synergy. I was given a “scorecard” of who was playing which part, but, again, I believe that is “too much information.” Yes, it is good to praise Mary Lynn Owen’s portrayals of Moisés Kaufman, and of the raspy-voiced Marge Murray, Stacy Melich as the police officer Reggie Fluty, Maggie Birgel as the activist-in-the-making Romaine Patterson, Jayson Warner Smith as Matt’s father, and so on and so forth. But the fact is, there is not a single “weak link” in this cast, and they all give such outstanding performances that even citing these four ignores too many portrayals of equal impact. For the record, as in Our Town, the ensemble consists of Mary Lynn Owen, Maggie Birgel, Allan Edwards, Michael Hanson, Asia Howard, Curtis Lipsey, Shaun MacLean, Stacy Melich, Maria Rodriguez-Sager, and Jayson Warner Smith
As with Our Town, the design and technical team is in top form, particularly the set and projections of Stephanie Busing, the lights of Ben Rawson, the sound (and musical compositions) of Bennett Walton, the movement coaching of Eliana Marianes, and, of course, the outstanding direction of Clifton Guterman.
And, the parallels with Our Town only serve to enhance both plays, as direct links can be made between the characters played by the individual actors, the portrait of small-town life remains steadfastly consistent, and the importance of family, friendships, and facing tragedy remain profoundly human, profoundly moving. And both plays are divided into three thematically linked Acts (Daily Life / Love and Marriage / Death and Eternity for Our Town, Who / What / Why for Laramie Project).
The Laramie Project is a stunningly effective portrait of a small town facing tragedy, a beautifully evocative companion piece to Our Town, and a breathtaking platform for the sort of top-notch theatrical experience I’ve come to expect of theater in Atlanta!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #TOLaramieProject)