BWW Review: St. Petersburg College Theater Department Presents THE LARAMIE PROJECT - A Powerful Play on the 21st Anniversary of Matthew Shepard's Savage Killing
"My son Matthew did not look like a winner. He was rather uncoordinated and wore braces from the age of thirteen until the day he died. However, in his all too brief life he proved that he was a winner. On October sixth, 1998 my son tried to show the world that he could win again. On October twelfth, 1998 my first born son and my hero, lost. On October twelfth, 1998 my first born son and my hero, died, fifty days before his twenty-second birthday..." --Dennis Shepard, Matthew's father, in THE LARAMIE PROJECT
"Hate is not a Laramie value..." --a quote from THE LARAMIE PROJECT
People often forget that it was front page news even before 21-year-old Matthew Shepard actually succumbed. I remember where I was exactly when I first read the horrific story: Sitting on a cold floor, waiting in line early that Saturday morning in October, 1998, for a large thrift sale to open--an annual event where I would get treasures for my pop culture emporium in Ybor City. I had a copy of that day's St. Petersburg Times and intently read one of the worst stories, an incident so awful that we couldn't even imagine such a thing. "Gay Student Beaten, Left Tied to Fence" was the headline on the bottom of Page 1. Under the headline I read the following: "Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, is found beaten, burned and trussed like a scarecrow. Police arrest two men and two women." The story that followed, and continued on Page 13A, was wincingly terrible. The only positive news was, the boy was still alive at the time.
The next day, October 11th, Matthew's story could no longer be found on Page 1. In the St. Petersburg Times, you had to go to page 5 to find out what happened: "Condition of Beaten Gay Student Deteriorates." It was Sunday, National Coming Out Day, and Matthew was still alive.
Unfortunately, on Monday, October 12, 1998, Matthew would die, and his death would place the youth right back on the front page of the newspapers the next day.
Even then we knew that this was a major event, a painful story of a hatred so extreme that it didn't even carry a proper name. ("Hate crime" just doesn't seem strong enough a term.) To begin with, the era was not too friendly to our gay brothers and sisters, although at the time the country thought a friend to the gay community sat in the White House. But the 1990's brought us "Don't' Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, the latter passing the 104th United States Congress with a veto proof majority and cynically signed into law by the Democratic President, Bill Clinton. But the poster child of this bumpy decade of the LGBTQ rights movement remains the battered, tortured Matthew Shepard, left crucified on a fence outside of Laramie.
SPC's strong production of THE LARAMIE PROJECT, the play surrounding the events before and after Matthew's savage beating and his final days, opened on the 21st anniversary weekend of Shepard's death. This did not go unnoticed. It gave the production, already quite powerful, an even greater sense of purpose, of responsibility. Although only a couple of the performers were born prior to 1998, the young cast knew it had an obligation to Matthew's memory, to history, and to the LGBTQ community, to do this show justice, to tell this important tale as truthfully as possible so that Matthew's death will never be in vain.
The show, written by Moises Kaufman and the Members of the Tectonic Theater Project, is based on actual trial transcripts and interviews with the denizens of Laramie. It's an ensemble piece if ever there was one, with fifteen actors portraying various roles.
The cast is energetic, and the play's pace is bam-bam-bam fast. (I was shocked that Act 1 was almost an hour long; it went by so quickly.) But sometimes it goes too fast, and we couldn't understand some of the students' lines due to minor diction issues and garbled words. (In one instance, "AZT" sounded like "ACT," giving the line a very different meaning.)
The actors are not wearing microphones because the logistics are so intimate (the audience sits on chairs on the SPC stage, mighty close to the performers); that being the case, some members of the cast need to sloooow doooown their words. This is a constant issue with young performers everywhere. They have so much raw vim, the adrenaline of performing rushing through them, that they plow right through the lines, as if they are striving to be John Moschitta, Jr., the Guinness Book of World Records Fastest Talker of All Time who could articulate 586 words a minute. This isn't Footlight Parade or The Front Page, where the rat-tat-tat dialogue is appropriately machine-gun fast. This show is already rapidly paced without the words rushing together. Speed of delivery does not equate itself with power. THE LARAMIE PROJECT is important stuff; we shouldn't miss a word of it.
This is truly an ensemble piece, featuring some terrific young actors of varying abilities: Noah Biddle, Patrick Cruz, Matthew Greer, Maxx Janeda, Jessica Jennelle, Hannah kemp, Shaun memmel, Dylan Odom, Martin Powers, Chelsea Ramiriz, Rhett Renaud, Jacob Roland, Kelcey Ross, Chloe Mastro and Julia Speyer.
Although they work well as a group, some of the cast members stand head and shoulders above the others. My choice for the top performance goes to the astounding Martin Powers. Powers, so good as the title role of Pippin last summer, is mesmerizing. A monologue from Jedadiah Schultz about performing a scene from Angels in America is brilliantly rendered in Powers' hands. (And like Jedadiah, Powers would make a great Prior Walter, just putting it out there.) He's sensational in his other characters as well, including a Unitarian minister.
Shaun Memmel is almost equally as good. I have seen Mr. Memmel in numerous shows since he was a young teen, and this is some of the strongest work yet. He's fantastic as the bartender who is one of the last to see Matthew alive. (He knows the future killers are up to no good and is haunted that he didn't do anything to stop them conversing with Shepard.) Memmel towers onstage, and playing both killers, you see in him a form of defiance trying to mask his true self and feelings-a shivering mess, trying to be stoic, finding himself on the losing side of a verdict (and history). It's an incredible, nearly nonverbal moment.
Patrick Cruz gets to showcase an extremely powerful moment, and he obviously has the acting chops to do it right. And Matthew Greer is overall very strong, owning the stage, especially as a Baptist Minister.
Maxx Janeda is extraordinary as Matthew's father, a part he played when SPC previously did the show several years ago. He gives one of the finest, most impassioned speeches to one of the killers, words that will make you cry no matter how hard you try not to. Never in life, or in art, has grace shown itself so beautifully and emotionally: "I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, the Fourth of July, remember that Matt isn't. You robbed me of something precious and I will never forgive you for that. Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life and may you thank Matthew every day for it."
Scott Cooper directs with so much heart. You get the sense that this is a beautifully guided production, making the most out of a relatively empty stage (pretty much just a table and a lectern). Lighting cues play an important part (thanks to lighting designer Celeste N. Silsby Mannerud), because the cast hurries on and off the stage with such precision, scenes flowing into each other. One mess up and the machine would go out of whack. But no one messes up, not the actors and not the tech crew. It's exquisitely timed, never disorderly like traffic vrooming out of control. It's an exquisitely guided production.
James Race's projections of Laramie and its outskirts, lighted on screens on opposite sides of the stage, really help tell this story.
A play like this does not let you forget who Matthew Shepard was and what he represents. When they found him barely breathing, tied to the fence, the only part of his body that was not covered in blood were the streams of tears that stained his face. Not to go too over the top with this, but Matthew's death, as THE LARAMIE PROJECT shows us, can lead us to a better world, a world of love and light and empathy. Away from the darkness of bigotry, homophobia and hate. We never forget--we cannot forget--because we never want this to happen again.
Twenty-one years have passed since Matthew's murder--the same amount of time that he was on this planet. He would be 42 today had he never met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. But fate had other plans. Is it a coincidence that, through his untimely and horrifying death, a person with the last name of "Shepard," no matter the spelling, helped lead the way to our better angels?
THE LARAMIE PROJECT runs through Sunday, October 20th, at the SPC Clearwater campus. For more information, please call (727) 791-5988.