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Review - The Laramie Project

Robert Knox
The Boston Globe
August 05, 2010
Murder lays bare a town’s soul

“The Laramie Project” is a play about the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student whose death 12 years ago came to symbolize violent homophobia. A 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Shepard was abducted, beaten, and left to die tied to a fence on the open prairie because, in the opinion of almost all who have examined the case, he was a homosexual.

In the year following the slaying, while two local young men were put on trial and found guilty of murder, a New York theater company traveled to Laramie and interviewed a wide cross-section of the town’s populace for their reactions to the murder and its meaning for their community.

The spectrum of opinions from these 200 interviews forms the substance of the play, written by Moises Kaufman and other members of the Tectonic Theater Project, which was praised as a pioneering work comparable to “Angels in America” when it opened 10 years ago. Critic Mike Kuchwara of the Associated Press called it “nothing less than an examination of the American psyche at the end of the millennium.”

Curtain Call Theatre in Braintree, a community theater that will perform “The Laramie Project” next week, describes the play as “a theatrical collage” that explores both “the depths to which humanity can sink” and the heights of human compassion. The play consists of “a series of monologues, some brief snippets” extracted from the interviews, said director Rob Drapeau of Dedham. Its dramatic structure reveals the character of the town, especially “how the town starts to unravel.”

Some of the play’s 70 characters – such as Shepard’s father and the two killers – are directly connected to the case. Some are local citizens appalled by what happened, while others are willing to entertain the belief that Shepard provoked his murder by involvement in drugs or some other crime. Some believe that the murder must have been committed by “outsiders.” These voices come from “both sides of the tracks,” a literal sociological marker in the town of Laramie, according to the Tectonic Theater Project. The college side of town – students and professors – attributed the crime to a climate that encourages and tolerates homophobia. The two young men who committed the murder, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, came from the other, disenfranchised part of town, characterized by school dropouts, crystal methedrine addiction, and resentment of the college kids.

Divided over whether local attitudes fostered a hate crime, some townspeople said “We’re not like this,” while others replied, “No, we are like this.” The effect is that the audience sees the same event from multiple angles, Drapeau said. Among the principle voices is Dennis Shepard, who argues against the death penalty for his son’s murderers. He wants them to have a long line in which they can think about all they have denied his son. Romaine Patterson, a close friend of Matthew’s and a lesbian, becomes an outspoken voice against homophobia in town, later carrying her message to a national audience as a radio host. Fred Phelps, who heads a nationwide campaign against gays, picketed the trial, arguing that the killing was justified.

Curtain Call’s production is performed by nine actors, with Justin Stidham of Braintree playing the narrator and the other eight playing multiple characters. Empathy for different points of view is furthered by having the same actor play thematically related characters, such as a Catholic priest and a Mormon spokesman, Drapeau said.

Among other cast members, Richard Carey of Quincy plays Moises Kaufman plus a handful of other characters and Jimmy D’Amico of Canton plays Laramie limousine driver Doc O’Connor, who testified in the case, and others.

Curtain Call is producing “The Laramie Project” in summer, a time when many local theaters go dark for logistical and financial reasons, because a play dependent on “the urgency of the words rather than any spectacle” is amenable to a spare, workshop-style production, Drapeau said. He believes it has a strong message as well: “The message is very much anti-homophobia. It is pro-diversity and anti-violence.”