The Laramie Project

By - Oct 6th, 2008 02:52 pm
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It’s been ten years since Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, was brutally beaten and left to die tied to a fence post out in the prairie. Matthew’s death – and the inscrutable cruelty of his killers – stirred a media storm, drew worldwide focus to a small Great Plains town and had us all asking hard human questions about hatred, justice and violence. Based on hundreds of interviews conducted in Laramie in 1998 and 1999 and the personal observations of the play’s writers, The Laramie Project is an intimate and moving attempt to make sense of the tragedy, a compelling portrait of a town rocked by a senseless crime and an interrogation into the nature of journalism. Soulstice Theatre’s production is simple but affecting and intensely heartfelt.

Directors Jeffrey Berens and Mark E. Schuster navigate an ensemble of eleven actors through a thicket of Laramie personalities – from a Baptist preacher and a diner waitress to a homicide detective, a neurosurgeon, an Islamic feminist, a lesbian professor and a gay cowboy – as well as the journals and notes of the Tectonic Theatre Project members who made trip after trip to Wyoming, entangling themselves in the story. Characters are signified by wardrobe pieces and small affects – a hat here, a nail bite there, a flannel jacket or a vocal inflection. They weave in and out, interrupt each other, struggle to express themselves or express themselves with too much candor, make off-handed comments or tell tales straight until, with an easy flow, a narrative arc forms. The first act ends with the discovery of Matthew’s barely-breathing body lashed to a fence by a lonely country road; the second with his death a week later; the third with the trial of his killers and the hush that finally falls on the community after a year in an awful spotlight.

Moises Kaufman’s beautiful script is hard to sell short, and Soulstice’s tight and talented cast delivers with enthusiasm, professionalism and emotional depth. Jordan Gwiazdowski is a dynamic and energetic force in the ensemble as the gregarious bartender who is the last to see Matthew Shepard alive, the detective who’s consumed and tortured by Shepard’s case and a Hispanic inmate at the prison where Shepard’s killers are sent, among other characters. Joel Marinan is natural and emotive as both Jedadiah Schultz, a University of Wyoming student whose homophobic parents won’t come to see him perform in Angels of America, and Matthew Shepard’s anguished father. He delivers Mr. Shepard’s speech at the courtroom with captivating eloquence. And Katrina Greguska as a university theater professor, a drawling Wyoming grandmother and the stern but aloof judge in the court case is magnetic. In this tiny black box theater, where the stage is draped with plain but ghostly gauze curtains, it is impossible not to feel personally engaged – even accountable.

The production’s inconsistencies – awkward sightlines, at times too-sentimental music and projected images meant to set the scene that are mostly distracting – are minor and forgivable. Perhaps the major problem here is both scriptural and directorial, and it is a question that lies largely unaddressed: a decade after Matthew’s death, after the psychic shocks of Columbine and Virginia Tech, September 11 and major terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, unstoppable violence in Iraq and Afghanistan – not to mention thousands dead in communities of every size of gun crimes, drug crimes and hate crimes – what is Matthew Shepard’s story worth? Is it possible to feel stunned anymore? What if this happened today? Would it seem outrageous? Or even relevant?

Soulstice shies away from context and plays it straight, and maybe The Laramie Project is a straight play, anyway. If anything, it serves as a lens, almost a sort of microscope: by looking unflinchingly close up at one death, one shocking and terrible and sad and miserable thing, and what it taught us about deep hatred, discomfort, loss, violence and compassion, maybe we can sort out a few more of the shocks we’ve endured to our cultural system, and remember how to grieve, and how to learn, and how to keep moving. This soulful production is hard, but healing.

The Laramie Project runs through October 19 at the Marian Center for Non-Profits. 414-431-3187 or www.soulsticetheatre.org

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