Mr. Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student, was savagely beaten and left to die, barefoot and lashed to a fence in his hometown of Laramie, Wyoming. The story made national and international headlines that resonate to this day, as hate crimes against gay men, lesbians, and transgender individuals continue to plague the nation and the world. The FBI report of hate crimes identified over 1,100 such cases in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. This represents officially-investigated cases. How many go unreported is anyone’s guess.
Statistics and true-life stories do not always make for a great theatrical experience, however. What makes The Laramie Project particularly effective stems from the way it was created by playwright and director Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. The group worked collectively, going to Laramie shortly after the murder, conducting hundreds of interviews, and combining them with material culled from published news reports to put together the script. It is a rare docudrama that cleaves so closely to the facts while maintaining dramatic and artistic integrity. The Laramie Project succeeds on all counts.
As a theatrical work, the play is ideal for a company like the Seeing Place Theater, which is in its fifth year of productions that are performed in the intimate, functional space of the ATA’s Sargent Theater in Hells Kitchen. The company’s founders, Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker, operating on a shoestring budget, still serve in every capacity necessary to keep everything moving forward. With The Laramie Project, they are the production’s designers, co-directors, and actors in the ensemble.
The Laramie Project, despite its running time of over two-and-a-half hours with two intermissions, is by design a minimalist work, dependent on its actors to portray dozens of real-life characters and their authentic voices. The power is in the story and in the telling. All you need are what The Seeing Place Theater has provided—a few chairs, a pair of chalkboards, and a dedicated troupe fully committed to the enterprise. In addition to Ms. Cronican and Mr. Walker, the cast includes a talented mix of Equity and non-Equity performers, each of whom is called on to switch characters with just a change in voice or by snatching up an article of clothing hanging on an onstage rack. They are Logan Keeler, Kathryn Neville Browne, John D’Arcangelo, Elle Emerson, Jonathan Miles, Christina M Pastor, and Christine Doidge.
Last year, I was privileged to attend a presentation on the impact of The Laramie Project on young performers and audiences, a presentation that included Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy. She and Matthew’s father Dennis head up a foundation in their son’s name aimed at combatting homophobia. What struck me was not so much Judy Shepard’s down-to-earth composure, but the reaction of many of those in the audience who participated in the Q&A session at the end. This was a group of teachers, all in same age range as Matthew, and nearly all of them wept as they spoke, citing the significance of Matthew’s story and the play in their lives—both personally and as educators.
There are only two categories of people who should see The Laramie Project: those who have never seen it before, and those who have.
The Laramie Project