BWW Reviews: THE LARAMIE PROJECT TEN YEARS LATER Offers Needed Insight into Growing Problems
The Laramie Project Ten Years Later/by Moises Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris and Stephen Belber/produced by Jon Imparato/directed by Ken Sawyer/The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center,Davidson/Valentini Theatre/through November 16
1998. Laramie, Wyoming. Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, tied to a fence, brutally beaten and left to die. He died in a Colorado hospital six days later. The day after the beating, the small 'cowboy' college town of Laramie became the subject of one of the biggest international media news stories in history. Shepard was gay, a student at the University of Wyoming, and most figured the attack to be a hate crime against homosexuals. Though the community of Laramie called it nothing more than a robbery or drug deal gone bad. In 2002 Moises Kaufman wrote a play with other members of the Tectonic Theater Project in New York entitled The Laramie Project based on the interviews he conducted with the citizens of Laramie. In 2008 he and his company returned to Laramie to conduct more interviews with the purpose of creating a second play. The Laramie Project Ten Years Later is what resulted and its West Coast premiere is currently onstage at the Gay & Lesbian Center's Davidson/Valentini Theatre with a tightly knit ensemble of outstanding actors under the stellar direction of Ken Sawyer. A must see!
The second play concentrates on Laramie's people's beliefs of "what we have done and what he haven't" since 1998. Many believe that there has been much progress, especially change for the younger generation. However, as many point out, "We don't know how to measure change". There has been dynamic economic growth, to be sure, but when the citizens start talking, excuses start to surface about even wanting to remember the murder. In fact, the field where the crime took place has been boarded off with all traces of the crime removed and there is no permanent memorial on the spot, except a simple bench in town dedicated to Shepard's memory. Insiders govern the history of a community and what results is massive denial, where a hate crime is labeled only a rumor, urban myth. Professor Catherine Connolly from the University of Wyoming (Elizabeth Herron), who later became the first gay woman to become a member of the Wyoming legislature, is one of those who do make a difference, emphasizing throughout the piece the importance of the people understanding their history and their place in it. She was instrumental in getting Resolution 17 passed, against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits legal acceptance of gay marriage. Quite a feat at that time! This past year, of course, the Supreme Court defeated DOMA, allowing federal recognition of gay marriage. Hate crime legislation? We now have federal laws against it, but it varies from state to state and Wyoming, referred to as the state of Matthew Shepard and the state of Brokeback Mountain, was - incredible but true - without it at the time of this play. Positive change is sadly a painfully slow process.
Ken Sawyer has imaginatively staged this piece in the round, and in this small theatre space, intimacy makes all the difference in getting the audience involved. Actors are seated among you and greet you, creating an even more intimate atmosphere, and the action close-up becomes so riveting, it is impossible not to feel a part of it. These actors play a variety of roles with a quick change of merely a hat or jacket and very little alteration of voice, accent or demeanor. Their credibility is assured as the writing has a rhythm that can readily be understood, and ...no falsehoods here, as Kaufman and his team use the exact transcripts of the interviews they conducted. Herron, in a marvelously gripping performance, plays Catherine Connolly and Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, who at the end of the play, concurs that her continuous activism has been indeed to keep Matthew alive as an icon for future generations. Paul Witten, Carl Johnson, Paul Haitkin and Ed F. Martin (Moises Kaufman) beautifully play the Tectonic company members who interview the townsfolk, as well as playing several of these Laramie people. They are all wonderful, as are females Che Landon, Leslie Stevens (in for Ann Noble), Christine Sloane and singer/guitarist Johanna Chase. who with her lovely Judy Collins-like voice, entertains the audience at intermission as well as on and off during the action of the play. Michael Hanson and Dylan Seaton alternate playing the two convicted murderers Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, who are also interviewed by the team. On the night I attended Hanson essayed Henderson and Seaton, the remorseless McKinney. Both do terrific work. Scenic artist David Burnham and set designer Robert Selander must be cited for vibrantly helping to put us there, smack dab in the middle of this prairie town.