Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Palo Alto Players joins thousands of previous productions in presenting the play that still shakes one to the core as we and the citizens of Laramie try to understand how and why this crime could have happened in their community. And although much has improved for LGBTQ folks since 1998, in 2017 alone, more transgender people were murdered in the U.S. than ever recorded; and both the A.C.L.U. and the Human Rights Commission report that incidents of hate against LGBTQ people has seen a dramatic and troubling uptick since the latest presidential election. Palo Alto Players's decision to include The Laramie Project in its 87th season is both a tribute to a play that has touched and changed lives for two decades and a an all too timely reminder that deadly violence against LGBTQ people is still an issue crying for continued focus and diligence.
The continued power of The Laramie Project is that the words from those 200 interviews become the script that a cast of eight delivers, together assuming over sixty roles of townspeople from police to clergy, friends of Matthew's to strangers who are disgusted by his "lifestyle," bartenders and waitresses to cowboys, housewives, and attending medical staff. The wide range of folks begin by describing the wonders of Laramie - a town where people all know each other, where there is plenty of space for everyone and a sky "so blue you can't even paint it." Those who knew Matthew also talk about him as an undersized guy who always had a big smile for everyone and talked to anyone, who had a political side to him ("a CNN junkie"), who sometimes lacked common sense, and who had just joined a LGBT group and was excited to get ready for Pride. The voices of the town set the scene for a normal, laid-back pace where life is good for one particular college kid who was a good guy, easy to like, and ok, also gay.
The outstanding cast of eight assembled by director Lee Ann Payne builds the story leading up to the horrific night and the aftermath by constantly switching personas, usually facing the audience when speaking and giving a personal account, viewpoint, or reaction as if still in the original interview with a member of the visiting project team. Members each employ a wide range of accents and voices and take on such mannerisms as a fire-and-brimstone minister shouting about sin, a fired-up bartenderer spilling words out as fast as they can possibly come, and a fiery red-haired mother desperately worried about her daughter who was the officer at the fence with Matthew. In between, the members of the town also each play members of the Tectonic team, explaining along the way their process and their individual reactions and emotions as they face and encounter Matthew's relatives, friends, investigators, care-givers, and even perpetrators.
What becomes ever evident as this ensemble goes about relating the findings of the project team is how much the individual actors themselves are genuinely affected by the story they relate. Emotions run the gamut for each as they switch roles and perspectives; but when it comes to those roles where tears might flow, it is clear the tears are more than just an acting technique. Kudos goes to each member for the evident care and commitment to authenticity brought to relating each individual townsperson's story as well as clearly, often giving that story the actor's own personal, deep-felt reactions.
While credit cannot be given to all roles played by each actor, each has a few personas that particularly call for attention. Todd Wright is the local rough-edge and gruff-speaking sheriff clearly shaken and emotionally affected by the event and a surprisingly sympathetic Catholic priest who stalwartly declares, "Every time you call someone a fag, a lesbian ... a dyke ... that is violence." Kelly Hudson is the first out-lesbian professor at the University of Wyoming and powerfully shows how Matthew's death shatters any sense of safety she once felt in friendly, "live-and-let-live" Laramie. Judith Miller is one of the local housewives who wishes this would all just go away as well as the arriving officer's mother who cannot hold back tears as she describes her fears but also her pride in her daughter. That officer is brilliantly played by Dana Cordelia Morgan, putting a face of courage and concern on the person who must live with the image of a head of an unresponsive boy, in a pool of dried blood, barely breathing. A student who shifts his views of gays, a theatre major who is psyched to be in Angels in America, and both of the accused murderers are just some of the roles Brad Satterwhite performs with exceptional exactness.
Roneet Aliza Rahamim plays a young Muslim woman in Laramie as well as a student who steps forward to face down the diatribe of hate spewing from the always angry Reverend Fred Phelps (Josiah Frampton) by forming a group of white-robed "angels" who hide him from Matthew's supporters and family. Mr. Frampton also is the over-hyped-up bartender who is one of the last people to see and talk to Matthew the night of his murder. Jeff Clarke is a professor, a gay cowboy, and the father of Matthew. In that last role role, Mr. Clarke gives an arresting performance as he tearfully faces one of Matthew's murderers in the courtroom and explains why the young man should have a life sentence in prison versus being sent to the electric chair.
The simple set design by Nikolaj Sorensen provides several levels with a few chairs and an occasional table or desk brought out for added context. Mr. Sorensen also designed projections shown on a backdrop of three vertical panels that give us hints of that big Wyoming sky, the millions of stars in its night, and the wide plains overlooking the town's twinkling lightsall part of the last views Matthew would have seen during the three days he laid tied to a fence with his head bashed in. Coat trees rest in corners decked with coats, scarves, and hats that become the quick costume (designed by Melissa Sanchez) changes as cast members convert on the spot from priest to doctor to sheriff.
The story of Matthew Shepherd is only one of hundreds like it where LGBTQ people have been severely violated and even murdered by those who object for whatever reasons to who they are as people. But to have his life, death, and the subsequent changes in the lives of the townspeople of Laramie documented in The Laramie Project allows Matthew Shepherd to remain a memorable face and story to help all of us continue the fight so those numbers will someday diminish to zero. Palo Alto Players deserves much support and full-house audiences for exposing yet more people to this story of twenty years ago, but one with so much current urgency to be retold.
The Laramie Project continues through February 4, 2018, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available at www.paplayers.org or by calling 650-329-0891.