In October 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay college student was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. The attack was particularly brutal. This event was the genesis of a play by Moises Kauffman called The Laramie Project, which is now playing at the Pentacle Theatre in Salem. This production of The Laramie Project is a strong piece of theatre that deserves admiration.
Shortly after the murder, the Tectonic Theatre Project from New York City travelled en masse to Laramie and interviewed about two hundred residents about the event. These interviews were distilled into representations of about sixty people, portrayed by thirteen actors, who speak their interview responses directly to the audience. What emerges is not really portraits of individuals, but a portrait of a place where such a crime could occur, and how the community responds. As the sheriff of the small town (population 30,000) says, “Now it’s a town defined by a crime.”
Represented are all sorts of Laramie citizens, including students, housewives, law enforcement, and religious leaders. One is a local Mormon who asserts “There is no sexual deviance in the Mormon Church.” Another is an emergency room doctor who expresses his shock at the brutality of the attack.
The staging of the play by director Rachel Duncan is nothing short of brilliant. The dozens of characters flow up and downstage with their furniture and other props, and co-operate with extensive use of a background video screen, with the smoothness of a ballet, and without ever distracting from the interviewees’ words.
Another strength is the authenticity of the acting and the emotions on display. The dialogue, even including moments of humor, interweaves the facts of the crime as well as its repercussions throughout the community. The text also shows a love of language as it is spoken – an awareness of the poetry of normal conversation.
On the whole the characterizations are solid, though not all the actors were up to the considerable challenge of convincingly inhabiting the numerous characters they are given to portray. Especially impressive are the various roles played by Richard Leppig, a Pentacle newcomer, and Jenni Bertels, a Pentacle veteran.
An unnecessary distraction is the use of women to portray some of the male characters. With six male actors in the ensemble, one questions the need for this decision.
One question that the play seems to ask is “How could this happen here?” In fact, one of the most memorable pieces of dialog is presented by a young Muslim woman who is baffled by the response of the community. She says “People say this kind of thing doesn’t happen here. But it did happen here.”
All Laramie citizens are represented very respectfully, with the possible exception of the actual two murderers. This is both a strength and a weakness of the play. While we want to understand the viewpoints of the various citizens of Laramie, we are left wondering how the environment was created in which such a crime could happen. If this play is about anything, it can’t be that there were just two isolated murderers who happened to live in Laramie. As one resident says, “we don’t grow children like this.” We are left wondering where this hatred came from, if not Laramie.
Though the idea of actors representing interviewees with their actual dialogue may seem like a static and sterile exercise, somehow the diverse talents who present this “Project” make it a dynamic and satisfying piece of theatre. The Laramie Project plays at the Pentacle through October 27.