THE LARAMIE PROJECT – Written by Moises Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theatre Project; Directed by Kate Gleason and Rodney Lizcano. Produced by the Arvada Center (6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada) through November 5. Tickets available at 720/898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.
Entering the theatre, you observe a set as wide open and breezy as Wyoming itself. A field of wheat is projected on the back wall blowing in the wind, immediately taking us to a place reminiscent of the location of Matthew Shepard’s last hours. A solemnity envelopes you with a sense that something significant is going to happen here tonight. It does.
This cast of eight bring to life the crew of the Tectonic Theatre Company who traveled to Laramie to do their own research on how a community recovers from a horrendous event that garnered international attention. Brought to the scene as neutral observers, they soon fell under the charm of the citizens with whom they interact. The cast portrays not only the ones asking the questions, but the local citizens who are answering. Tectonic is pleaded with to “get the story right.” Not to portray the people of Wyoming as homophobic or unaware. Most of Wyoming has a “live and let live” attitude toward everything, including their gay population. As the discussion continues, there is a universal realization that there is still work to be done toward understanding and acceptance. Some characters portrayed change over the course of the interviews; some remain the same, good and not so good.
I cannot say enough about the amazing work this cast of eight brilliant actors accomplish. These eight – Jada Suzanne Dixon, Chrys Duran, Torsten Hillhouse, Christopher Hudson, Rodney Lizcano, Susannah McLeod, Anne Oberbroeckling and Warren Sherrill – portray a combined total of 84 named characters during the two-hour production. With the addition of a scarf, a jacket, a hand crocheted vest, a head band, a cowboy hat and the like, they slide easily into the next character and continue the story. They are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that come together to form a picture of both Matthew and Laramie recovering from grief. You’d think this would be confusing to watch, but the audience is NEVER confused about the identity of who is speaking and their place in the story. As an ensemble, the actors are flawless.
It’s hard to explain how deeply you as an audience member can get involved in the narrative. The story moves so quickly, is so complete from every angle, is told with such conviction, the characters so finely drawn, you are compelled to constant attention and emotional empathy.
I feel a strong personal connection to this story. I was working at the Denver Center when this play was in development by Tectonic and their host company. Once they moved from the rehearsal room to the theatre, I used to sit in the back of the house during rehearsal and watch them put it together, moving scenes into different places, deciding what to cut. Attending again on opening night, I was dismayed to learn that they had cut one of my favorite scenes – a grandmother with a gay grandson putting two redneck cowboys in their place in a laundromat.
Dennis and Judy Shepard will be conducting talkback conversations on October 28th and 29th for those who would like to attend. Call the theatre for more information about tickets for this special event.
A WOW factor of 9.5!!
PS: Six years after Matthew’s murder, 20/20, the TV news magazine, did a follow up story that tried to downplay the hate crime aspect of the event and blame it instead on drugs. McKinney, one of the murderers now serving a life sentence, was a known meth dealer. 20/20 believed that both McKinney and Henderson, the other participant in the beating, were hopped up on meth and were looking for someone to beat up, gay or not. This resulted in Tectonic returning to Laramie for another round of interviews with the same citizens to discover what had changed in Laramie in the interim – if anything – and how the citizens responded to the 20/20 charges. The result was a second look at the event in THE LARAMIE PROJECT: TEN YEARS LATER. It opened in simultaneous readings in October of 2009 in over a hundred theatres around the country.