BWW Reviews: Ford's Theatre Gets to Heart of THE LARAMIE PROJECT

Tuesday night's press performance of Tectonic Theater Project's The Laramie Project was a true case of the well-known mantra, "the show must go on," coming to life. Thanks to the unfortunate federal government shutdown, Ford's Theatre Society was unable to hold its press performance of the powerful drama as scheduled in its historic home. In a city where the theatre community might not be as tight as it is in DC, it may have simply been cancelled. However, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company graciously stepped up to the plate, providing Ford's with access to its rehearsal hall to perform the well-honed play for members of the press and other invited guests with only a few hours of preparation.

Without the aid of projections, lights, sets, or even time to block/rehearse the show in the new space, an eight member cast of some of DC's best acting talent reminded us what makes The Laramie Project so compelling and truthful in the first place - the story. The story is, of course, the brutal murder of a gay university student in Laramie, Wyoming in the late 1990s, which riveted the nation. Based on Moisés Kaufman and other members of Tectonic Theater Project's interviews with locals following the hateful beating of Matthew Shepard as well as journal writings, The Laramie Project not only explores this senseless act of cruelty in and of itself, but the impact it had on the town's populace, and what it meant in terms of larger human rights issues that extend far beyond that average American town.

Taking on a variety of roles - town residents with various degrees of distance from the victim and perpetrators, hospital employees, the perpetrators, Matthew Shepard's father, as well as the Tectonic Theater Project members involved in creating the play - Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hébert, Paul Scanlan, Kimberly Schraf, Chris Stezin, Katherine Renee Turner, Holly Twyford, and Craig Wallace give honest, truthful, and realistic portrayals of over 80 characters. Under the exceedingly perceptive direction of young phenom Matthew Gardiner, they got to the heart of what the story is - a story about the beauty and ugliness of humanity.

Bells and whistles proved unnecessary thanks to the quality of both the acting and the script. In fact, the stripped down approach to the show - with only costumes (Helen Huang), original music and sound (John Gromada), and a table and a few chairs (Beowulf Boritt) - brought out the message of the piece even more.

While all of the actors in the tight ensemble gave stellar performances - particularly given the circumstances - a few highlights stand out as the most memorable.

Who can forget Gilbert's impassioned speech as Romaine Patterson - a 20-something who was close friends with Matthew Shephard - about how Matthew's legacy inspired her to pursue political activism, or how she and her friends dressed up as angels as hateful Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps protested outside the courthouse using their wings to block his view. It was full of emotion and realistic conviction, indeed.

Lest not we also forget Craig Wallace's portrayal of Doc O'Connor, a man who ran a limousine service that came to know Matthew Shepard as a customer, taking him across the border to Colorado to go to gay bars. His straight-forward manner of speech and sense of comedic timing served this down-to-earth character quite well.

Holly Twyford - arguably one of DC's strongest actresses with a chameleon-like ability to seemingly take on any role - was at her best as Reggie Fluty, a police officer in the community who reported to the scene when the young man was found. Fully embodying a tough middle-aged woman who has seen it all, has her wits about her, yet was deeply-affected by the incident, her monologue describing what she saw on the scene was among the most moving. Yet, she also brought a smart-alecky sense of humor to the table as Reggie 'did battle' with her well-meaning, but worried mother (Kimberly Schraf). The two actresses' believable chemistry made these scenes - which aren't always the most affecting in the piece - among the most noteworthy moments.

Yet, the most heart-wrenching moment came from Mitchell Hébert who beautifully personified the forgiving spirit of Mr. Shepard, Matthew's father, as he offers his thoughts on whether Russell Henderson, one of the accused, should receive the death penalty. True, the monologue is powerful even on paper, but the sense of sadness mixed with determination that Hébert brought to that moment made it all the more gut-wrenching. To say that it was beautifully raw is an understatement.

The exact fate of this production, as the congressional impasse rages on, is unknown, but it's my hope that the DC community has a chance to see this show in whatever form it may come and wherever - be it at Ford's Theatre or somewhere else - it might be presented. It's too good to miss.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including 2 intermissions.

As of the time of this review, all performances of The Laramie Project at Ford's Theatre have been cancelled through October 6, 2013. Free performances are being offered at the First Congregational United Church of Christ on October 4 and 8 at 7:30 PM. Consult the Ford's Theatre website for the most up-to-date information.

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg (cast pictured).

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