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Review: AcTEENg and Murfreesboro Little Theatre's Powerful Restaging of THE LARAMIE PROJECT

Matthew Shepard is remembered in confident and thoughtful production at Walnut House

Review: AcTEENg and Murfreesboro Little Theatre's Powerful Restaging of THE LARAMIE PROJECT

When Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in 1998, anyone could scarcely have known or even surmised the impact his life would have on people the world over and today, almost 23 years after the fact, his presence on this earth continues to be felt in ways both momentous and personal.

Now, thanks to a confident and thoughtful production of The Laramie Project - a play about the murder and its impact on the community of Laramie, Wyoming, where it happened - AcTEENg Theatre Group and Murfreesboro Little Theatre remember Shepard and the events surrounding his untimely death before he was able to make his mark on the world in which he lived. Yet, due to the heinous, almost unbelievable, nature of the crime, Shepard became the emblem of the movement to reclassify crimes against members of the LGBTQIA community as "hate crimes" and his significance has never diminished in the more than two decades since.

Director Jamie Leigh Stevens and her 23-person cast bring the script to life with honesty and authenticity (although there is a certain unevenness to the performances given the range of talents among the ensemble) and the story of Shepard and the myriad other personalities in, about and around him never fails to pack an emotional wallop.

Review: AcTEENg and Murfreesboro Little Theatre's Powerful Restaging of THE LARAMIE PROJECT
Joseph Stanley

Created by playwright Moises Kaufman and members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project, who traveled to Wyoming to interview citizens about the events, The Laramie Project is horrifyingly real and raw, the stories that feed into the central narrative seeming like something made up by a playwright to represent reality in heightened fashion. The knowledge that it is derived from fact, that it is indeed representative of verbatim theater (the words come from interviews about a particular subject) ensures the play has gravitas beyond anything that could have been conceived as fiction.

Shepard was not the first young gay man to be murdered because of his sexual orientation (in fact, a boy I grew up going to church with in my very small, rural hometown was brutally killed in a similarly gruesome fashion in the early 1980s in Martin, Tennessee, where he was a music major at the University of Tennessee-Martin) and, unfortunately, he was not the last. But by retelling his story, by allowing audiences to feel the weight of the horrific truths, Matthew Shepard continues to play an enormous role in changing public perceptions of bigotry and prejudice and, ultimately, he can help to alter the course of public opinions and, more importantly, the very laws that conspire to keep the LGBTQIA community "other" and "separate."

Stevens and her creative team (including lighting designer Ricky Martini) stage the production with a spare aesthetic that seems reflective of the vast open landscapes of Wyoming itself, transforming the performance space at Murfreesboro's Walnut House into something more enveloping, almost immersive. Projections wrap the space in such a way that audiences cannot help but become a part of the story unfolding onstage and they are reminded of the realities of life in the early part of the 21st century and how times have changed since for the LGBTQIA community.

The only true set pieces to be seen are rough-hewn representations of the prairie fence to which Matthew Shepard's murderers (who subsequently were sentenced to two consecutive life sentences each for their crime) had lashed him after beating him and leaving him to die alone and exposed to the elements.

Review: AcTEENg and Murfreesboro Little Theatre's Powerful Restaging of THE LARAMIE PROJECT
Eleanor Vaughan

Stevens' ensemble of actors play a wide range of characters in the Laramie community, ranging from the police officers investigating the crime to friends of Matthew Shepard and even his father, Dennis, who along with his wife Judy Shepard subsequently became an activist in the wake of his son's death. Thankfully, Kaufman and his Tectonic team chose not to include Matthew as a character in the script, although the specter of his presence looms large throughout the two-and-a-half hour story told onstage.

The actors in the piece are listed by name only, with no character descriptions or photographs to set them apart (their "anonymity," if you will, lends greater resonance to their performances), which allows them to easily slip in and out of their various roles. The cast includes: Marion Burnette, Roger Davis, Alex Day, Emma Hawkins, Shannon Hayes, Amy Holt-Aviles, Olivia Hollandsworth, Abby Jackson, Keri Lambert, Alec Lanter, Ryen Lawing, Adam Le Blanc, Lindsey Linville-Nave, Shane Lowery, Ren Marasco, Laura Sanchez, Joseph Stanley, Leanna Terlecki, Kyle Tobeck, Jessica Townsend, Randy Truong, Eleanor Vaughan and Zoe Zent.

Review: AcTEENg and Murfreesboro Little Theatre's Powerful Restaging of THE LARAMIE PROJECT
Zoe Zent

The Laramie Project seems unrelenting in its aim to paint an accurate and compelling picture of the various forces that ended a once-promising life in such a senseless manner, yet somehow it remains sensitive and so very heartfelt. And no matter how much you think you know about Matthew Shepard, you owe it to him and to yourself to witness this fine production.

The Laramie Project. By Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project. Directed by Jamie Leigh Stevens. Assistant direction by Madison Tobeck. Stage managed by Karma Wicken. Presented by ACTEENG Theatre Group and Murfreesboro Little Theatre. At Walnut House, 115 N. Walnut Street, Murfreesboro. Through Sunday, July 11. For details, go to www.mltarts.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

photos by Jessica Goings Nelson



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From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)


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