First a prologue to the review: because of the government shutdown, Ford’s Theatre could not use their space for the press opening. They also have had to cancel Wednesday’s performance, and possibly others. Ford’s Theatre made the decision to shift the press performance to the Woolly Mammoth rehearsal space, without sets, slides, or the lighting design. To be sure, such a rapid move says a lot about the cooperative spirit of DC’s professional theatre community.
And now the review.
News about violent crimes have, unfortunately, become common place in America these days. Whether it is a mass shooting at DC’s Navy Yard or at a Newton elementary school, or the rape of a girl by members of the Steubenville High football team, or the beating and rape of a Haitian man by the New York City police, or the torture and death of a 21-year old homosexual by two Laramie, Wyoming, men, the violence continues as does America’s fascination with, and abhorrence of, hatred’s very existence.
Hate is everywhere it seems, as is our shock when we discovery it living next door.
The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theatre Project, now playing (hopefully) at Ford’s Theatre, explores not the dichotomy of a murder but its impact on a town, a small town whose residents seem absolutely positive that they are not capable of such violence.
…this play is a hopeful anecdote to such lingering paranoia.
The Laramie Project is structured very much like a TV news magazine, and that is because its tale was in fact back in 1998 and ’99 national news for many months.
Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old openly gay student at the University of Wyoming, left a bar with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Later that evening McKinney pistol whips Shepard with the butt of his 357 Magnum. The two men then take Shepard to a remote rural area, tie him to a fence, and torture him into a coma. They leave him for dead.
Six days later Shepard dies.
The subsequent media rush transformed the brutal killing into a national spectacle, a spectacle which eventually led to hate crime legislation, popularly known as The Matthew Shepard Act.
Tectonic’s script, built from a series of interviews the company did with residents of Laramie, recreates the process of those interviews: we watch actors playing actors interviewing Laramie residents played by those actors. In the original production the actors doing the interviews also did the performance, so their reportage and subsequent impersonations were based, presumably, on first-hand data.
The theatrical result is an unusual combination. On the one hand, we see Tectonic’s New York company members venture to the remote western town of Laramie to engage in a process they admittedly have never done before. We see them treading lightly into people’s lives, people who are leery about how they might be portrayed in this time of crises by these New York actors. On the other hand, we see how the residents of Laramie are perceived by the actors: the company offers us a townscape of sorts, a community of shell-shocked citizens wanting to protect themselves and their town’s image.
For the most part, the residents do as we would expect: they hold firmly to their beliefs. In this case they believe in a small town America protected from evils all too familiar to urbanites. They believe in the protective powers of deep religious views, plenty of natural splendors, and basic decency.
As the reality of what happened emerges, however, that myth begins to waver, if only slightly, as the script and the production also seems to hold firmly to a beatific portrait of small town America, a small town America without drugs, or misogyny, or cruelty—and not even very not much homophobia, except, as the saying goes, as manifested “in a few bad apples,” and only then under the most specific of circumstances.
Ford’s Theatre has pulled together an impressive eight-person ensemble: Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hébert, Paul Scanlan, Kimberly Schraf, Chris Stezin, Katherine Renee Turner, Holly Twyford, and Craig Wallace. Each actor portrays an actor in the Tectonic theatre company. That actor then portrays numerous people from Laramie—too many to count really—using the words and sayings gathered from the interviews.
The ensemble handled the multiple characters well, giving each person a unique speech pattern and countenance. They also delivered the story of Tectonic’s exploration of Laramie with purpose, engaging the audience with clearly articulated characters and ideas. Additionally, the comedy of the script came across nicely.
Particularly distinct characters were drawn by Twyford and Stezin, with Twyford’s female cop and Stezin’s bartender being most memorable.
The emotional substance of the circumstances was more difficult to fathom, however. The quick changes between characters meant that actors were frequently dropping into a situation in which a person had emotional baggage bubbling near the surface. Audience and actors both had little time to adjust to the rapidly altering circumstances.
Nevertheless, Craig Wallace did well at bringing his impending catharsis to the stage. In particular, his doctor, upon reading a statement from Matthew Shepard’s mother, nearly brought me to tears.
Director Matthew Gardiner created some visually interesting moments with the actors. The pace of the script, however, seemed a bit lacking, with occasionally too much space between the quick changes in characters and situations.
Clearly, The Laramie Project gives voice to an important issue facing America. Though the bigotry, fear, and hatred faced by homosexuals has declined somewhat in recent years, their historical and religious roots still fester beneath the surface, and this play is a hopeful anecdote to such lingering paranoia.
It also commemorates a watershed moment in America’s recent cultural past, bringing to the fore the human rights struggle of America’s gays and lesbians.
I will admit, however, to having my interest piqued by what the script fails to explore.
The two young men who were given two life sentences apiece for Shepard’s murder were portrayed as such relative innocents. One confesses to the act upon his arrest and the other pleads guilty before his trial begins; he then issues a heartfelt apology to the parents of his victim. So who are these men and what gave rise to what is portrayed as a singular moment of hate and violence?
Though caught in a tragic situation, the townspeople were painted as so wholesome, as if they had no dark secrets, as if America’s heartland truly consisted of only the God-fearing individuals. Yet, such a portrayal defies reality. For example, we now know that the rise of methamphetamine began in the rural Midwest in the 1990s, with Laramie but one of many communities struggling with the epidemic. Plus, there is also evidence that Aaron McKinney was addicted to meth, which might explain his almost psychotic behavior (as described by the play) that horrific evening.
Finally, the play portrays the now infamous Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, as he came to national prominence during Shepard’s funeral. In fact, religious bigotry takes center stage as the play’s only viable antagonist. Like a seed buried deep within each of us, all it needs is the right set of circumstances to burst full grown into violence.
In response to Phelps’s extremist rhetoric and clearly inappropriate conduct, a resident of Laramie organized a protest of “angels.” They surrounded the pastor with their wings. Though Phelps and his crew continue their extremist ways even today, for a moment his visage was blocked by imaginary wings.
We can only hope that as this nation and the world continues to struggle with homophobia and all the other forms of religion-based hatreds, we will continue to have the courage to summon forth our imaginations to reimagine both ourselves and the world we make.
Running Time: two hours and 30 minutes with 2 intermissions.
For information on Ford’s production of The Laramie Project click here.