In the immediacy of the deaths of thousands of innocents, why should the death of a single young man, not particularly noteworthy in himself, become an object of intense examination and reflection? Perhaps, like Anne Frank, the death of Matthew Shepard at the hands of an ignorant brutality has become a symbol representing both the suffering of many others, and greater questions of social responsibility. Besides, "The Laramie Project" is not a play about Matthew, the gay Wyoming college student who was mercilessly beaten and left to die on a lonely fence in the middle of nowhere. It's a play about the community of Laramie, constructed from interviews with the residents. It's about a place altogether familiar and complacent until that one death changes the lives of everyone who lives there, and leads to a year of self-examination and self-definition, which is the true focus of this work.
"The Laramie Project" is fascinating, exhausting, at times pedantic, often painful, frequently funny and always personal. In a sadly contemporary way, it's a kind of "Our Town" in which Emily has been despoiled and murdered before the story begins. The Empty Space has put together a solid and committed cast, well directed by Chay Yew. At times the purely documentary nature of the script seems a bit prosaic, and the argument for justice and tolerance a bit too heavy-handed. But in the end it is the humanity of the individuals in the community, and in the cast, that actually makes the death of that one young man momentous.
Director Yew has set the play on a bare stage, except for plain wooden chairs. That choice adds starkness to the situation, and keeps the focus on the people. In a play dangerously dependant on rather static declaration, this production has a wonderful movement and visual variety. The pace, especially in the first two acts, is crisp and fluid, with clear accents, neither hurried nor sluggish. The final act slows appropriately, as the action moves to the rather anticlimactic pleas in the courtroom, the words of the attackers and the bereaved families, and a dénouement for the entire community. The character of Matthew Shepard himself is represented by an isolated circle of light.
The cast is thoroughly competent in creating the wide variety of characters in this play, and avoids any sort of show-off, see-how-many-people-I-can-be stunting. Instead, we get the full spectrum of a diverse community, and the submerged message that on some level we are, indeed, all of these people ourselves. This is a strong ensemble, passionate about the material and entirely capable of its wide-ranging demands.
Within this cast, I thought Duke Novak was particularly excellent. Early in the play, he portrayed an eager young actor who chooses to do a scene from "Angels in America" in a competition, hoping to make an impression and get into college. The subject matter, however, also alienates his parents, and for the first time the issue of homosexuality arrives on stage not as an abstraction, but as the divisive, intensely personal, intimately painful subject which will course through the remainder of the evening. Mr. Novak elevates the entire production in that scene, and throughout the evening, especially in the final act, as the pitiful, inadequate attacker McKinney.
Also outstanding was Ron Simons, as the bartender who was working the night of the murder, and who saw the three men leave together. In that role, and in all the others he played, Mr. Simons had dramatic presence and impact, as well as excellent delivery. Scott Plusquellec did an excellent job with roles ranging from the sheriff, to the physician attending Shepard, to ordinary men in the community. I also thought Shelley Reynolds was strong and convincing as a passionate young lesbian for whom this whole experience is one of self-discovery and social engagement.
"The Laramie Project" is in some ways a docudrama of the sort that television movies have made into a triviality. It's an event taken from the headlines and dramatized in order to teach some larger lesson. But as a descendent of the "Living Newspaper" school of social conscience that emerged from the 1930's, it's a reminder of how much more immediate and effective the stage as a medium for social discourse can be. Had this been only the story of Matthew Shepard, I think it could easily have become trite propaganda, and faded as rapidly as yesterday's newsprint. But because it's the story of a community and how a single traumatic event can lead to self-definition, I think it will remain valid and effective for some time to come. This show will now be produced in community and regional theatres around the country, and will generate discussion and reflection. No matter where you might stand on the question of gays and gay rights, if you listen to schoolyard taunting for even a short time, it's clear that bias, fear and hate remain disturbingly present. Perhaps this show will make it a little less likely that those young people being taunted today will end up hanging from some fence, freezing in their isolation, looking at the stars over some distant town where they can never belong.
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